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Hacking the curriculum: How to teach data reporting in journalism schools

Journalists and educators largely agree at this point that by the time journalism students graduate they should have some experience with data. The Dow Jones News Fund, one of journalism’s most prestigious education programs since the 1950s, debuted a data internship this year. Data has become a more common topic at education convenings, and NICAR, a community devoted entirely to data journalism, is one of the fastest-growing organizations in the industry.

“It happens every year, just the same. Papers are posted to a board at NICAR seeking journalists with tech skills; journalists tweet encouragements that any young person wanting a job in journalism should learn data and coding,” USNews data editor Lindsey Cook wrote in a paper called “Why journalism students don’t learn Computer Science.” “This is what the young whippersnappers should learn! If only there were more of this!”

The reality for most schools, Cook acknowledged in an interview, is they can’t easily make the kind of sweeping changes this would require. Schools might not have access to the right people, or the funds to take on new faculty, or even the freedom to get a new course approved by higher-ups.

Schools might not have access to the right people, or the funds to take on new faculty, or even the freedom to get a new course approved by higher-ups.

For this report, we interviewed more than a dozen reporters, editors and educators and identified three foundational ways to overcome these obstacles and incorporate data journalism into J-school teaching. The following sections will describe the pros and cons of these approaches and how others can adopt them.

Last year, the Columbia Journalism School conducted a review of 113 journalism programs and found that 40 percent didn’t have a single class with a data component.

The study found that, rather than adding data to the curriculum via its own class, it should be integrated into many journalism classes, starting with the course that first introduces students to the basics of reporting.

“Our central recommendation is for journalism schools to treat data and computation as core skills for all students,” the authors wrote. “Data journalism must be taught as a foundational method in introductory classes, a distinct theme in media law and ethics, a reporting method suitable to any specialized reporting course, and a subject in which interested students can pursue advanced coursework or a concentration.”

Rather than adding data to the curriculum via its own class, it should be integrated into many journalism classes

This is a separate endeavor from the data used in classes like web design or web analytics, which tackle different digital foundations like HTML and viewer counts. The truth is, more and more data is being released into the world, and sources and consumers alike are becoming more adept at handling it. MaryJo Webster, who teaches a data course for undergraduates at the University of Minnesota, said data should be seen as a basic checkbox for journalism education, just like conducting interviews or reading documents.

“I’m worried that if we’re not teaching them in the beginning, then they’re starting to develop bad habits,” she said. She gave the examples of taking a PR rep’s word without question, or accepting a summary report rather than forming a conclusion on one’s own. “We’re training them to give up,” she said. “Too many of my students, who are seniors when they get to me, have already got those habits when I get to them.”

Moving data into the introductory classes would expose students to the power of data early on, even if they’re just learning the basics when it comes to technology. This approach to teaching would also avoid some of higher education’s biggest obstacles, like finding new staff, or acquiring approval to alter a whole curriculum. This paper will outline some solutions to these obstacles, and explore some ways forward to reach a point where all journalism students leave school with some data skills.

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