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Session 4: Census

The Census offers far more than simply a count of people in the U.S. It’s your go-to source for data on who we are, and the way we live and work. Here are a couple of examples of how — or perhaps how not — to use Census data in your stories.

CBS Evening News: Homeownership (and the Census data behind it)

NBC Today: Census Bureau: Whites will be minority by 2043 (and the Census data behind it)

Let’s start with a quick explainer on the difference between the 2010 (decennial) Census and the American Community Survey (ACS):

2010 Census American Community Survey
Shows the number of people who live in the U.S. Shows how people live
Straight count of population and basic characteristics (sex, age, race, Hispanic origin, and homeowner status) Demographic, social, economic, and housing characteristics
Happens once every 10 years Ongoing survey that provides data every year

Thus, ACS data will provide a richer source of information for your stories. ACS 1-year estimates provide data for areas with population of 65,000 or more, ACS 3-year estimates give figures for populations of 20,000 or more, and ACS 5-year estimates offer information on populations of almost any size, down to block groups (about 1,300 people). Note that ACS figures are estimates, and you should always identify them as such.

Official Census sources

State and County QuickFacts offer easy access to broad info.


American FactFinder, which includes American Community Survey data.

Facts for Features — collections of statistics from the Census Bureau’s demographic and economic subject areas that commemorate anniversaries or observances and/or provide background information for topics in the news

Census press releases

The Census is also starting to release data from the 2012 Economic Census.

You can use Census data to localize a national or international story (for example, how many people of Ukrainian ancestry live in New York?) or to provide context for local story (what percentage of people in New York live below the poverty level?).

Third party sites that aggregate Census Bureau information

New York City Department of City Planning’s Population Page

Baruch College NYCdata and research guide

Infoshare Online and Social Explorer are available through the J-School

The University of Virginia Library’s Historical Census Browser has data from 1790 to 1960.

All Things Census blog from the Pew Research Center

Note: there is no religion data in the Census. For that, go to the Association of Religion Data Archives’ Religious Congregation and Membership Study.

Here’s the Research Center guide on Mining Census Data for Reporting.