Institutional Challenges: Student Engagement

Journalism programs need to do a better job of persuading or even requiring students to take a data journalism class. Students may shy away because they believe they aren’t any good at math. “A lot of students are scared of ‘that math thing,’” said one journalism student at Northwestern University.

Resistance to math is an issue far broader than the field of journalism, but it will need to be addressed if teaching data journalism is to be taken seriously. This applies to both teachers and students, some of whom may have chosen to pursue journalism in part because they thought that it would require little or no math.

The problems go deeper than just convincing people they can handle math. Even in universities with entire programs focused on teaching programming, data journalism, and even data visualization, some students have reported that it wasn’t easy to find out about these opportunities. Some of the reasons have to do with silos within schools and departments for specific programs as well as specific tracks with emphasis on specific types of journalistic practice.

Rich Gordon, co-founder of the Knight Lab and director of digital innovation at the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University, agrees that a gap exists between the basic CAR course and the much more advanced program through Knight Lab, which brings in technologists and works with the technologists to develop new applications for journalism. Journalism students going through a normal degree plan may have the opportunity to take a basic CAR class, but most won’t ever be exposed to the work at the lab, he said.

In general, data journalism courses are electives and draw only a few students out of the total enrolled in each journalism program. Some of that has to do with capacity, but another issue is the lack of visibility. Often, other professors don’t treat the classes as vital to a journalism career.

“There’s some student interest in CAR,” said one University of Missouri journalism graduate. “But there would be more if it were expressed as an option for students early on.”

Universities can address this issue, said Mike Reilley, professor of practice at Arizona State University, who regards universities as “‘too siloed.” Reilley advocates team-taught courses and cooperation between departments.

Some students work their way through to find what they need. For instance, one student who took Temple University’s undergraduate class in data journalism had taken classes in programming with Python through the university’s business school. She told our researchers she planned on learning more data journalism as she wanted to continue doing this type of journalism when she graduated. But institutional changes could make data journalism much more accessible.

Several students suggested that schools should offer a track that could include a journalistically focused statistics class, a class that focuses on databases, a class with a focus on reporting with data, and others that delve into more in-depth data reporting and data visualization.

One of the authors of this report co-taught a spring 2015 watchdog reporting class with an engineering professor. Five computer science students embedded into project teams of journalism students. The journalism students learned new data skills, and the computer science students learned techniques in reporting and writing. The class offered challenges, too. Next time around, there may be a more defined way for the journalism students to take on data challenges of their own and continued emphasis on having the computer science students learn skills such as interviewing.

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