Media seeks answers for document dump challenge

The Knight Foundation awards the AP $475,000 to develop tools to help journalists sort through document dumps, where troves of information are made public all at once.

In the news
The Knight Foundation awards the AP $475,000 to develop tools to help journalists sort through document dumps, where troves of information are made public all at once.

Why does it matter?
As WikiLeaks or Sarah Palin's emails during her time as Alaskan governor demonstrate, we're not only living in an information age, but in an era where information is available in huge chunks.

"It's not just electronic data," explains John Bracken, Knight Foundation digital media director. "It could be printed documents. I could drop off a million pages with AP and no matter how many reporters there are, they won't be able to go through it all. That's where AP's [document dump] tool [Overview] will help track and store data."

Bracken adds that the recent document-dump flurry has led to the emergence of data journalists, whose primary role is analyzing chunks of information. Still, most outlets sense these document dumps are more than they can handle. The Washington Post and The New York Times, for example, posted the emails online and invited the public to sort through the text.

PR pros won't likely be asked to help with document dumps, but David Lerner, president of Riptide Communications, says they can play a key role in interpreting what does get found.

Lerner notes that while the early focus was on files related to Guantanamo and the US' Iraq policy, opportunities arose later to leverage documents to highlight lesser-known issues, such as the US' role in the 2009 Honduran military coup.

"These document dumps lend themselves to advocacy," he concludes. "And that's what advocacy PR is all about."

Key facts
1. 24,199 pages of emails from Sarah and Todd Palin to state officials were made available to the media by Alaskan officials in early June, but only in printed form.
2. AP's Overview will create visual maps of topics within large sets of documents and provide conversation threads and social network visualization of emails.
3. US federal agencies combined get more than a half-million requests for documents and other information annually under the Freedom of Information Act.

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