Prep for Census 2010’s First Wave
In a few weeks, the first detailed results of the decennial U.S. Census will start pouring from Census headquarters in Suitland, Md., and a Panic Season will commence in unsuspecting newsrooms. What are these numbers? Where can I download them? Didn’t we just get new Census data? Can you tell me whether Census counts X or Y or Z?
On deadline, that’s a lot of potential headache. I know you want to avoid the pain, so take some advice from a guy who survived reporting on Census 2000: prep is everything.
Here are five steps you can take now:
1. Know your Census products: These days, “Census data” means more than it did a decade ago. The advent of the American Community Survey — a survey of about 3 million households each year that replaced the old Census long form — means we get annual estimates in between the full decennial counts. And the ACS comes in three flavors: single-year data plus three- and five-year aggregates, each providing different levels of geographic granularity.
The regular releases of ACS data make Census seem more routine these days, but the data coming out soon are different. These aren’t estimates from a sample — they’re the complete counts taken in spring 2010 via a short questionnaire sent to every household in America.
This first wave of Census 2010 data, coming state-by-state in February and March, are the Redistricting Data (P.L. 94-171) summary files. They’ll contain the basic counts of population by race for every state, county and place in America, all the way down to the smallest geographies, called blocks. As its name implies, these data will be used to redraw the boundaries of legislative, electoral and other districts in states — a process journalists will want to keep tabs on.
Later, in the summer, Summary File 1 will offer more detailed data on age, sex, households, families, and housing units — again from complete counts. Then, in the fall, we’ll see the next release of ACS data. Got all that?
2. Know the questions Census asks: Because the ACS has added complexity to Census reporting, it’s crucial to know the differences between it and the decennial count. A good starting point is to look at the forms people fill out — the questionnaires for Census 2010 and the most recent (2010) American Community Survey. Reading those will help you know what data are available and help you answer questions that might come up in the newsroom. For example, “Does the Census ask about religion?” You’ll know the answer is no, because there are no such questions on those forms.
For this first wave of Census 2010 data, note that the form only asked a few questions related to age, sex, race and relationship to the householder.
3. Know your geographies: Beyond the nation, states and counties, decennial Census data are aggregated for many geographies — from school districts to voting districts to Census tracts. The technical documentation lists them, and this geographic area reference manual, though old, has a ton of info. It’s helpful to know, for example, how blocks build up into block groups and then into tracts and what each level represents. Reviewing the available areas also can spark story ideas. Which of your local school districts had the biggest population increase? How has diversity changed in your state’s congressional districts?
4. Know the 2000 data: A big part of reporting Census 2010 is comparing the new data to the 2000 count. Hunting down comparable 2000 P.L. 94 data will be a chore on deadline, so do yourself a favor and get it now for the geographies you plan to cover. You can find tables on the Census Factfinder, or if you’re super adventurous you can download the raw data by state. If you’re going that route, be sure to read the technical documentation.
5. Know where to learn more: Study the Census Bureau’s site, of course, but there’s more out there. Investigative Reporters and Editors has a Census resources page with information on training, webinars, tipsheets and links (assembled with the help of my Census mentor and colleague Paul Overberg). The Pew Research Center has an All Things Census blog where it’s tracking the progress of the count and the meaning of the results. And the upcoming IRE computer-assisted reporting conference in Raleigh will offer sessions on Census as well.
Good luck and have fun, Census hounds.