Making the Census Count | Stats + Stories Episode 106 / by Stats Stories


Mike Ananny is an Associate Professor of Communication and Journalism and Affiliated Faculty of Science, Technology, and Society at the University of Southern California’s Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism. He studies the public significance of networked news infrastructures and the politics of algorithmic systems.

Mark Hansen is a professor of journalism where he also serves as the Director of the David and Helen Gurley Brown Institute for Media Innovation. Founded in 2012, the Brown Institute is a bi-coastal collaboration between Columbia Journalism School and the School of Engineering at Stanford University -- its mission is to explore the interplay between technology and story.

News Counts is made possible by a grant from The Knight Foundation

+ Full Transcript

Rosemary Pennington: The Census is something most people don’t think about until they get a Census form in the mail or meet a Census worker in person – but taking a census of those living in the United States is one of the most important things the government does. Census data influences the creation of voting districts, determines how many members of the House of Representatives a state sends to Congress, and can impact the types and how much funding communities receive for various projects. Helping journalists communicate to their audiences the importance of the Census to American life is the goal of a new project and that is the focus of this episode of Stats and Stories where we explores the statistics behind the stories and the stories behind the statistics, I’m Rosemary Pennington. Stats and Stories is a production of Miami University’s Departments of Statistics and Media, Journalism and Film as well as the American Statistical Association. Joining me in the studio are regular panelists John Bailer, chair of Miami’s Statistics Department and Richard Campbell former and founding chair of Media, Journalism & Film. Our guests today are Mark Hansen, Director of the Brown Institute for Media Innovation at the Columbia Journalism School and Mike Annany an associate professor in the Annenberg School of Communication and Journalism at the University of Southern California. The two are working together on the new project News Counts which aims to help create quote a robust national conversation about the serious and imminent challenges facing the 2020 Census. Mark & Mike thank you so much for being here. How did this project come about?

Mark Hansen: That’s a good question. I can tell you, personally, I’ve been involved in the census for a while. I did some work with the Census in the 1990 Adjustment case, and back when I was in graduate school. As when the Census came around and started to be a thing in the news, I saw more and more need for responsible reporting around why the Census is important. I can’t remember how Mike and I—a mutual friend of ours brought us together because we both had an interest in the Census. And Mike –

Mike Ananny: Yeah, my geeky background story is- so I’m Canadian I’ll put that on the table-


Bailer: It’s okay.

Ananny: I actually tried to volunteer for the Census I think in like 2000 when I was a student and was refused because I was Canadian. But I’ve been fascinated by the Census for a very long time. More as a social phenomenon, than a scientific endeavor, and then now as a Journalism professor. I think I was motivated by the idea that journalists rely on the Census a lot. They rely on the idea of the Census, on the data of the Census, but they don’t necessarily know that. There’s a lot of- especially as local journalism has become decimated and newsrooms have shrunk, and these kinds of things- that it was going to become even more important this time around for journalists to fight for the power of the Census and figure out what it meant for them to use it. So, I was motivated to try to help journalists do their role as story-tellers with census data.

Campbell: Can you tell us just a little bit about what the NewsCounts network is? Or what you hope it will be?

Hansen: Yeah we started with the idea that- as Mike said- that the local newsrooms are having a tough time of it and that it’s more than likely a typical newsroom doesn’t have any [inaudible] memory about what happened last time [inaudible] to either sort of track where their community is in terms of people in numerators been hired, that kind of thing. And also perhaps not really realizing the extent to which the Census is important to their local government, the statistic keeps moving around, but I’ve heard anywhere between six and eight hundred billion dollars come back to the local communities based on census counts. So, our thought was that we could help build up some of that expertise by bringing in academics, demographers, social scientists, statisticians, computer scientists, data scientists- bring them into the newsroom or in dialogue with the newsroom, and perhaps community groups, to sort of pitch sessions, if you will. To try to come up with good stories and help find good stories and then also help with the technical lift to tell those good stories. So the network was an attempt to cross a number of different disciplines to bring good journalism to the public, so they understand the stakes that are behind the Census. Especially, once the citizenship question appeared.

Campbell: Okay one of my- as a Journalism professor- one of my favorite quotes that John and Rosemary have heard me use a lot is “the job of a good journalist is to make the significant interesting”. That’s from Bill Kovach and Tom Rosenstiel, and their book The Elements of Journalism, so how are you going to make this interesting? We know it’s significant, you also mention the problem, the news deserts we have- I mean we’re kind of in one right here in southwestern Ohio right now. This is a really important story, I think building a network- I mean, getting things that are local- local news outlets interested in this- is going to be a particular challenge. Especially in newsrooms where the staff is decimated. So have you thought about that particular problem? I know nationally, I think, there’s going to be a lot of stories about this and there already have been in The Times and The Post, but this is a story that’s going to affect people locally in their regions, and those newspapers need to be doing that so tell me a little bit about that challenge.

Ananny: Yeah, I can speak to that a little bit. It’s one of the guiding principles really is, that the local newsrooms know their communities best. So I don’t think that Mark or I or this network would ever try to talk down, say “here’s what the stories are, here’s what they should be”, but more to offer some starting points for local journalists. I think when we’ve spoken with folks in local newsrooms, they know intuitively the importance of the Census, and they know it but they don’t necessarily have concrete examples. So one is setting up a conversation among local newsrooms, where people- and some journalists have already told us this – they’ll say, “Oh yeah, I did a project about library funding”, or something like that, and that acts like a bit of a spur to some of the other folks. It’s sort of a comparative approach where local newsrooms can get ideas from each other, so that’s sort of one thread. And the other is the pop centers and the local demographers and the social scientists who are also in these local communities who are not journalists, per say, but are so familiar with the data infrastructures and have a lot of – almost story prototypes already, because they’ve been working with the data and the process for so long, that I think a lot of the motivations and ideas and story frameworks and leads- in a way, could come from them. From demographers and the pop center folks who haven’t been journalists per se, but have a lot of ideas about what the important stories are. That’s the two mechanisms that I think that this network could really bootstrap.

Hansen: And I think if I can add- ultimately, the Census story- I mean there are obviously national policy level questions but ultimately the Census story is a local story. In that, it will vary tremendously from place to place. And with this census, you are seeing the involvement of civil society groups who are helping their constituents understand the importance of the Census. I mean these groups are involved – probably like never before, and I think to help bring in, as Mike mentioned- demographers or social scientists- you know, people who have- and local governments who have an understanding of what it means locally to be counted and where that count has impacted the community, I think that’s going to sort of- the sum of all those parts is going to be truly amazing story, but it’s going to be told ultimately locally and by the specificity of local community.

Bailer: I find this really cool, I’m very intrigued but this, the idea of having a particular framework and lead that might be suggested. It sounds like there could be even story templates that are developed that could be locally developed, locally expanded and flushed out. Do you have particular examples of some of the types of story frameworks or leads that you have thought of initially?

Ananny: Well, I think that yeah, for me- one of the big buckets is sort of economic development set up stories. So the Census data’s relationship to economic development. So we speak very specifically- you know, in Los Angeles there’s a lot of conversations around gentrification, for instance, and the economic dynamics of gentrification. So I think something like gentrification which is actually something that is happening in a lot of mid and larger cities around the US. It has a cultural component, a demographic component, it has an economic development component, but I would – for me the bucket, or category of gentrification, is one I think is one that is really interesting, to think about how census data could inform that kind of storytelling. That actually links to – what I would not want this network to be doing is trying to create brand new, from scratch, themes or stories, that these newsrooms and locals have never really thought about. Ideally, I think we would say let’s look at what you’re already doing, think about what you’re already doing, don’t try to reinvent yourself as an expert in some brand new area. But think about how both the census data and the relationships to the local demographers could enhance or could help the storytelling and the reporting that you’re already doing. So gentrification is one of those examples that readily come to mind for me because it’s such a complex phenomenon, and there’s a data component and a local relations component that’s already happening. The story of gentrification is already being told in a lot of cities across the US and has local flavors that Mark has been talking about.

Hansen: I think form, a story that I’ve been spending some time with population divisions in New York City and they’re concerned with things at the local level like disaster preparedness, right? So a hurricane rolls through or something like that, and being able to have an accurate count of where people over the ages of 70 are along the coast or that kind of thing becomes really important, so it becomes like a- again, it’s sort of hard to – these stories once you start to unpack them, come so easily because it’s hard to find an aspect of our lives that don’t require that kind of base map of the Census. To understand where people are living.

Pennington: You’re listening to Stats and Stories and today we’re talking with Mark Hanson and Mike Ananny about a new project they are helping launch called NewsCounts. I use census data a lot in a multimedia class I teach where I have students dig around in the data and then create an infographic from it, where I try to teach them how to think about infographics. But what I often see my students do is struggle to find the story in the data because there is so much data in census material. What advice would you have for journalists to not become overwhelmed by the data, and how would you see this network helping journalists move through this material?

Ananny: So I teach data journalism at Columbia, and I try to avoid the “here’s a big data set, find a story in it”, for exactly the effect that you’re describing. People get lost pretty quickly, it – you almost want to teach them the flip, which is there’s an issue that I’m interested in, whether it was disaster preparedness I mentioned before or gentrification, or more locally in New York there was a discussion about closing Rikers, for example. You have a particular problem that you’d like to address. What data sets are there to assemble? And then that guides your path through that data set. It can be very difficult even in a statistics class to say, “Here’s a data set, now go find something”.

Hansen: I totally agree with that, so I teach a class on the history of journalism. It’s sort of history from the US news from kind of revolutionary war period forward, and one of the things I have students do with data sets is have them do a historical comparison approach. Well, let’s go look into the archives and- not quite randomly, but I have students do one which is words and depictions of women in different time periods in newspapers. And we look at how even from titles that are used or how women have been used from sources and are not appearing in news sites, newspapers in different time periods. So we’ll use something like how people being depicted in the news over time, and then that becomes a thread that we can follow. And then I say okay well let's go try to use data from a census in a different time period, and then let’s go try to use data from the Census today – how have the data in the Census shifted and where might those shifts have happened and how are those shifts represented in news? So I sort of takes a historical approach. And often students are really- they get jazzed pretty quickly about these historical questions because it lets them explore different kinds of folk theories, about why might shifts have changed and where do those shifts come from?

Ananny: You know, it’s interesting, in one of my classes a student had picked up a topic he was interested in gentrification, and when a beginning data student picks that up you go “uh-oh”.


Ananny: Because as Mike has indicated there’s like a rich topic and so you’re going to want – you know, it’s like the “white whale” of statistics, right? The curse of dimensionality, right? So what he had done was to use the Census to find neighborhoods in New York City where the median income had gone up significantly in the last ten years or so, and then use the Bureau of Labor Statistics to figure out what- in those neighborhoods how had businesses changed? So, what was the makeup and changeover of businesses? And then married it all with Google Street View, which in New York is available back to 2005. So we can go back ten years and see the change on the street of what had happened, right? Because, some of these gentrification questions, when you come in midway-

Pennington: Right.


Ananny: -you don’t know what’s happened before. So there was a kind of nice melding of data, but again it started with that base map of the Census, and what’s there on the ground.

Campbell: So one of the things that’s interesting to me – we had John Thompson on in 2017, about a month before he resigned. He was to direct the Census and I think he directed the Census in 2000, is that right? I think he did. One of the things that he told us in our podcast with him is that 40% of people who don’t self-respond, and the challenges of getting people to respond to this. Partly, some are just suspicious of government but I’m thinking we have the challenge of- this is going to be the first time we’ve done online responses, and these are stories to me, you know, first of all the people that feel like the Census is not important so they don’t respond initially, so have you thought much about this and how – I mean this is one of the things we’re worried about, right?

Ananny: Yeah, especially you know like somebody who’s living in Los Angeles- who’s a large undocumented community that’s in Los Angeles- and that’s right in my neighborhood, that’s a really strong phenomenon, and I think you’re right, and that’s where the delicacy for me of the local journalists who know the local communities really well is powerful, because you’re right. The absence of the answering of the Census is a story in itself, but it’s a story that needs to be told in a way that is super respectful and careful of the precarity of the people who are even outing themselves as people who have not answered the Census or has- so how to report on that absence. And I think that’s a perfect marriage of looking at the meaning, the statistical meaning, of those absences in the data set, and then doing the interviews and the more ethnographic, close observation, that truly only happens when you’re a journalist who has a relationship with the local community. I mean at a neighborhood level. These are people that you see every day, that’s the only way that you can have the trust to be able to tell the story of that absence. So in Los Angeles- in a lot of other cities, not just in L.A.- but it’s a huge, really delicate thing to try to report on.

Hansen: I think part of our project is to make it clear to communities for members of the community who view this as a choice, even though it’s sort of legally mandated, but they see it as a choice, that the tradeoffs that are being made when they make that choice. By not filling in the Census appropriately, all these other things are being tagged to your presence in this community. All these different programs are being funded in a certain way because of counts that are happening at this level, in a local area. So there are consequences locally, if the count is it-if there’s an undercount of a particular group, so I think that’s why you see so much [inaudible] and make sure that communities understand that things are safe, that filling out the Census is an important act. And I think bringing journalism into that is critical because we have a role that is unique in society and can really help people understand that trade-off they’re making.

Bailer: It seems to me that a lot of times that controversy is what drives people to read stories about the Census. I mean, I think that when you talk about all the money that comes back to communities, that’s clearly a critical element of the impact of the Census, or representation or other kinds of allocations, but it seems that when you see the Census getting a lot of attention, it tends to be because of things like the 1990 adjustment, and some of the controversy that seems to be associated with that for many groups and then most recently some of the discussions of the citizenship questions on the most recent census. So how do you balance the eyeballs being attracted to controversy stories associated with the Census with some of these deeper impact importance of the Census questions?

Hansen: I think the way I would – there are two ways. One is to recognize that there sort of a national level controversy story that some people- some audiences might not be distinguished from sort of the local phenomenon that’s going on so that if you’re reading or watching the big central TV news mostly coming from east coast large media organizations, then you might have one image of the controversies that you’ve described, but for a lot of people, on a local level the controversies- yes they’re important and significant and meaningful but they play out really differently, and I think articulating the tradeoffs I think that articulating the tradeoffs that Mark was talking about, sort of like yes if you see this as a choice then understand that a choice has consequences. Sort of separating this national narrative which, agreed- feeds on controversy and feeds on this drama of the question- separating those from the local dynamics is really key. And that’s what we see with local news audiences, are really different than the ones that are plugged into the national news audiences. So paying attention to and keeping those people in mind as your primary news audience is I think the best.

Ananny: And the other thing is that I think some of these national controversies, whether it’s an adjustment or maybe the new moves around differential privacy, those are also, I mean – it’s a hard thing to count everyone in the United States, right? And so ultimately there are technical questions that arise, mathematical questions that arise, and I think even at a national level- and this is a bit outside the scope of the project, and I apologize- but even at a [inaudible] level there is something that we as statisticians should be doing to help the public understand how these mathematical concepts are impacting what- on the face of it would seem so easy just by using the word “count”, right? And you just walk around going “one, two, three”, but in fact, it’s really hard and there are all these [inaudible] and I don’t even [inaudible]

Pennington: So what does success look like for NewsCounts, as you guys are thinking about outcomes?

Hansen: For me, so I think success would have a few different dimensions to it. One would just be helping this – I think of it as almost his community that’s just below the surface, that’s almost information that just needs a little bit of help or infrastructure to nudge itself over. So one would be to see stories emerging from collaborations among local journalists. So that would be a huge thing for me, if I could see local journalists in small markets who would not necessarily had the infrastructure or the power or the time or the resources to do that reporting on their own. If they partnered with one or two other newsrooms and then together did a story that would be huge, I think that would be great. The other dimension I think about is the relationship with the local social scientists and demographers in their communities, so that it’s less about cross-relationships among journalists, but it’s more about looking within and around your own community, and reminding yourself maybe or discovering new relationships that you didn’t know you had with your social scientists. And then the third dimension that comes about is a network that lasts beyond the Census, so that it is something that doesn’t just get stood up for this one particular challenging census, but that journalists and demographers and social scientists take it on for themselves and say, “Oh, well we’ve built something here that could apply to a whole other area that we haven’t thought of before”, instead of just relationships. So those are, for me, the sort of three dimensions of success that I would love to see happen.

Ananny: For me the lingering, I mean obviously getting a good count, right? Making sure that we don’t mess this up. We live with the President for four years, we live with the Census for ten, right? But we get a clean count, would be an obvious outcome. But as Mike was saying, leaving behind this relationship [inaudible] that has never – that had been involved now with computer science or statistics group to tell a census story maybe a year down the line has another data related story that they would like to tell, they know who to call now, and are comfortable because they have a working relationship. And at the same time maybe that rubs off a little bit on the computer science and statistics so that they have a little bit more of a public mission. So, if they see something in their communities they can bring it to a newsroom and feel comfortable with that kind of dialogue.

Bailer: So what do you want someone who’s interested in participating to do? So you have somebody who’s a statistician, data scientist, journalist, demographer, whatever specialty- how do they plugin and what is it that they would do?

Ananny: The first, easiest thing is to get a website. and if you go there, there’s a button at the very bottom of the page that says join NewsCounts and you’ll get messages from me and or Mark and our team that gives other ways of participating.

Campbell: I did that yesterday and I still haven’t heard from you guys.


Ananny: And our personal email addresses are on there as well. I’ve been contacted by a few newsrooms actually, and what I think we would like to do is- as quickly as possible- start doing some matchmaking and bringing people together. So I would encourage the listeners, the statisticians, computer scientists, data scientists, data- people of all stripes, you know, let the conversation with the news station in your area and get things rolling. Or if you have a conversation already going, let’s talk about it and see what works and what was hard for you or what was easy. Because we’re coming to this as facilitators, if you will, so we’re coming to this with design process in mind, with pitch process in mind- so we’re not coming in saying these are the stories you should tell and this is the data you should use – we’re coming more to listen and to help facilitate conversation so that something authentic can come from the localness of it all.

Pennington: Well, Mike and Mark that’s all the time we have for this episode of Stats and Stories. Thanks so much for being here.

Both: Thank you.

Pennington: And good luck with NewsCounts.

Ananny: Thank you so much

Hansen: Thank you for the opportunities.

Pennington: Stats and Stories is a partnership between Miami University’s departments of Statistics, and Media, Journalism and Film, and the American Statistical Association. You can follow us on Twitter or Apple podcasts or other places where you find podcasts. If you’d like to share your thoughts on the program send your emails to or check us out at and be sure to listen for future editions of Stats and Stories, where we explore the statistics behind the stories and the stories behind the statistics.