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How to Drug ‘Differential Privacy’ (And Other Questions Census Reporters Ask Themselves)

Before there was a dedicated census reporter at the Associated Press, there was a Poynter workshop on the census.

Let’s rewind to 2019. We knew The 2020 census will be challenging to cover. This will be the first count to be held primarily online. The Trump administration’s effort to add a citizenship question to the census is headed to the Supreme Court, and many census takers and experts are concerned about the accurate accounting of US residents.

As much as the census has always been about money and power, it is deeply rooted in identity politics.

With initial funding from the Anne E. Casey Foundation, Poynter had a first Many training sessions are dedicated to covering the 2020 Census. Longtime AP data reporter Mike Schneider was one of 30 reporters to travel to what Poynter calls “journalistic heaven” — and the trajectory of his career changed. Schneider became the lead census reporter at the AP, covering stories ranging from secret memos and scandals to millennial movements and the words we use to describe ourselves.

I caught up with Schneider by phone to talk about what it’s like to work on the Census beat, then and now. We get into some juicy topics including democracy, antitrust and data.

Below is a transcript of our conversation, edited for length and clarity:

Mel Grau: Tell me more about your experience at Poynter. You said it was a career changer.

Mike Schneider: The workshop was absolutely brilliant. First, (lead faculty member) Dee Cohn — there’s no one better when it comes to the intersection of journalism and census. She was reporting on it for years at the Washington Post, and she was such a great teacher. She is a wonderful person with this quiet dignity and intelligence. The rest of the workshop team was great with former Census Director John Thompson, Detas head of California’s census efforts. KataguHe’s now the highest-ranking official at the Census Bureau — and Margo Anderson, who literally wrote the book on the history of the census.

Being exposed to these people who are deeply involved in the census and past censuses, being able to have them as contacts and then getting the background and perspective on why this is such an important beat is a real advantage for me.

I wouldn’t be where I am now without this workshop.

Mel Grau: You’re now the lead census reporter at the AP. Did you get that position after the Poynter workshop?

Mike Schneider: I went back and wrote one of those emails you always send to your editor, “We need to do this! Here’s why.” That email was probably sent in March. And it wasn’t until the summer that the editors at the AP said, “Yeah, we’re going to go ahead and do this.” Scott Stroud, based in Nashville, was hired as the editing point person. The first big census story I did was when the Supreme Court ruled against the citizenship question.


Related Training: Register Now How to develop stories from 2020 Census data


Mel Grau: Just seven months after our first census workshop, you a Poynter Workshop on Census in Miami. how was it

Mike Schneider: We are within three months of the census beginning in Alaska in January 2020. It was great to be able to reconnect with Dee and some of the people from the March seminar. It was a pleasure to be able to ‘spread the gospel’.

Mel Grau: It’s thinking back to late 2019 and early 2020 at this point. There are already plenty of innovations in the 2020 Census report, and then you add the pandemic. So, how did your experience at the Poynter workshop help you navigate the turbulence?

Mike Schneider: You have an epidemic and you have administration efforts to end the census early. Many of the attendees at the pointer seminar witnessed the Congress, putting status papers based on what was happening in real time. And, I had their contact information. I was able to interview him because I met him through these Poynter seminars. I knew them. He knew me. That was really, really helpful.

Mel Grau: It’s now mid-2022. Did you think you were covered in the 2020 Census yet?

Mike Schneider: I didn’t think it would happen after 2020! But it’s an unexpected gift because it’s a beat that I enjoy and catch. Apparently, it will go to 2023 as the last dataset of the 2020 census is not scheduled to be released till then. So I’m crossing my fingers that I’ll be on the census beat in another year.

Mel Grau: More and more news organizations, including the AP, have developed democracy beats or hired democracy reporters. How does the census fit under that umbrella?

Mike Schneider: The A blow to democracy for AP Relatively new. I think the parameters are still being created for that. People on that beat are primarily from state government or political backgrounds. So I am not in that team. But the thing is, like any news organization, it’s not just a specific team that works on these stories. They might form the core, but then you borrow people or beats from other areas. My beat has a role in that coverage, including the census.


Related Training: Apply by September 16 Covering political extremism in the public square.


Mel Grau: What work from your time covering the census are you most proud of?

Mike Schneider: The great thing about taking a census is that you interview people in every metro or community in the United States. During the actual headcount, when people were knocking on doors, I had a wide range of census takers talking on the floor to find out what was going on.

I think this is probably the story I’m proudest of: I could Get the census taker on record that they have been instructed to put in unconfirmed information In order to meet the deadline set by the Trump administration on census forms, people at the Census Bureau knew they needed more time to have an accurate count.

Mel Grau: Looking ahead, what story are you most excited to pursue?

Mike Schneider: This statistical technique is the first used by the Census Bureau in census data, and the goal is to provide privacy so that people cannot be identified by using census data with another dataset. So this technique basically fudges numbers of small geographies like neighborhood blocks and is called “differential privacy”.


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My editor and I are always joking about how we can make differential privacy sexy, because it’s so technical. People don’t take articles to read about statistical tools. But it’s going to have a real impact on people’s confidence in the data, and there’s a big pushback on the tool from the research community, urban planners and others. For me, following the impact of this privacy tool is what I look forward to covering.

Despite what it sounds like Really Dry, I’m fascinated by the fact that the Census Bureau is trying to do something that protects people’s privacy, but at the same time, to some extent, it undermines some people’s confidence in the data.

(Note: Mike found a way to say This story in a strong way!)

Mel Grau: Is there anything else I should know about you or your pointer experience?

Mike Schneider: I’m just a huge fan. At first it was a little journalistic Valhalla. I like to spend more time. You go there and you’re in this little journalistic paradise. I really appreciate what I learned from the seminars there. So I say… keep up the good work!

Are you ready to learn with Poynter? If you’re interested in digging up census-related stories in your community, register Free, self-directed course. D’Vera “Dee” Cohn took everything we’ve learned from hosting our Census workshops over the past few years and distilled the lessons into interactive sections packed with the resources, activities, and tools you need to access and analyze these complex datasets. The entire course takes between two and three hours to complete, but you can take it in your own time and at your own pace.

The effort was led by census reporters at Big Local News at Stanford University, Northwestern University and the Associated Press, and was made possible with support from the Google News Initiative in collaboration with JSK Journalism Fellowships and anonymous donors.

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