Institutional Challenges: Faculty Expertise

There is no secret that a divide exists between the professional journalism world and the academic world. This chasm continues even with faculty when it comes to who teaches data journalism and the impact it will have on the department.

Of course, each brand of data journalism instructor may have his or her own biases. Those who started as professional journalists, or who still work in a newsroom and teach as an adjunct, believe that they can convey the critical thinking skills needed to succeed in a newsroom environment more effectively than a professor whose experience is in research.

On the other hand, Diakopoulos of the University of Maryland believes that faculty should hold PhDs, and that while it would be good to be able to hire someone with 25 years of experience in data journalism, it’s an unrealistic expectation at this stage of the field’s development. His goal, he said, is to teach thinking through research. Still, he admitted that this is a struggle.

Some data journalists and journalism professors take issue with Diakopoulos, suggesting that such a model of data journalism professors with PhDs is unrealistic in a world where data journalism emerged from the professional practice, not academia.

Wherever journalism schools find the necessary faculty, just hiring a new professor to specialize in data journalism will not solve the problem, said Doig from ASU. “One difficulty with having somebody like me is everybody else can say, ‘Ah, we don’t have to worry about data journalism now.’ In reality, I teach maybe two sections of 20 students each semester. That’s a fraction of our total student load,” Doig said. “So believing that it is somehow being taken care of by one specialist like that, that isn’t the case.”

To help solve at least some of the issues, Doig has provided short video tutorials to other professors for basic government reporting classes.

While Doig believes it would be good to have a required data journalism course, he also questions whether that is possible. “How are you going to find the faculty to teach that?” he asked. “There’s not enough people in town who could teach that.”

Professional track and academic track faculty members agree that for now, pulling in professional journalists to serve as adjuncts will continue to be necessary and that relying on professional journalists alone will not solve the problem.

For Dustin Harp at the University of Texas, Arlington, this conundrum was solved through her own initiative. She had never taught data journalism but decided the students needed the class, so she did some research and created one. Some colleagues asked her why. She has tenure and no one asked her to take on the extra work. But the students needed the class, Harp said. She used for tutorials and learned the same information before teaching her students.

“The thing is I’m a qualitative researcher, I’m not a numbers person, I’m not a numbers cruncher, so it was very crazy and daunting. After I said I was going to do it, it was on the schedule, I was like what have I gotten myself into?” Harp said. “But I follow the field. . . . I’m aware that data journalism is, it’s a tool our students need to be more competitive to get jobs.”

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