Model 2: Integrating Data and Computation into Existing Courses and Concentrations

General Guidelines for the Undergraduate and Graduate Levels

The basic principles of data journalism should be as familiar to students as writing a lede, shooting b-roll, or tweeting updates to a developing story. To integrate data skills into journalism instruction means introducing these concerns across the curriculum.

Our central recommendation is for journalism schools to treat data and computation as core skills for all students. 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.

Moreover, because data and algorithms are increasingly important topics to understand in order to report on issues in business, politics, technology, and health, among others, subject area reporting classes should include material that prepares students to approach these information sources with proper skepticism and to explain them clearly in writing. In the models that follow, we point to a few ways that data journalism can be integrated into courses that are commonly offered in journalism schools.

One notable difference between graduate and undergraduate programs is that a master’s program often begins with a boot camp in which students are quickly brought up to speed on a wide range of skills. For the majority of students, who enter without a declared concentration, a boot camp may point toward areas of unexpected interest. To integrate data and computational journalism into graduate programs, it must be given equal footing alongside other areas where students may choose to specialize. An introductory module on data journalism will benefit students as much as learning the basics of photojournalism. Moreover, thematic elective coursework such as environmental and political reporting should integrate data instruction to the same degree that it would emphasize such distinct approaches as photojournalism, broadcast, and long-form journalism.

Introductory journalism classes are necessarily broad. Some classes are thematic, covering material from the basic history and general practices of journalism to the range of technologies and reporting techniques that constitute the modern media. Others focus entirely on the practice of journalism. Either way, data and computation must have a place foundational courses.

At the undergraduate level, this should apply to students pursuing either a major or a minor in journalism. Coursework toward the minor also should integrate some measure of data and computational instruction.

Schools may also consider working more coursework in data and computation for other programs and concentrations. Students focused on investigative reporting, for instance, would benefit from additional coursework on finding stories in data, perhaps even as an additional requirement.

Introductory and Required Journalism Classes Integrating Data and Computation

Basic Graphics, Video, and Multimedia

How and why to integrate data: Different schools may teach a variety of visual tools under the heading of graphic, video, multimedia, or digital media. There are productive ways for data and computation to be integrated into these lessons, however the classes are structured. Data visualization would dovetail with instruction in other graphical storytelling methods such as design and video, for instance, while a general familiarity with news apps could be developed in multimedia classes.

Skills to integrate: Simple tools for building charts, maps, and timelines. Include building maps and basic data charts, visualizations and timelines, plus an overview on news apps.

Possible assignments:

  • Use simple tools (Google Fusion, CartoDB, or Esri’s Story Maps) to locate the availability of a public service across a geographic area.
  • Use simple online charting tools to illustrate changes in the annual budgets of several government offices.
  • Include data visualization within a video to provide context and enhance the story.

Media Law and Ethics

How and why to integrate data: Legal considerations form one of the core concerns of data journalists: making public records requests can be one of the most fruitful avenues for reporting, but also one of the most frustrating. Journalism students should learn the relevant public records laws at the state and federal levels.

They should also address the common misconception that data is sterile, objective, or in some sense detached from human experience. On the contrary, all data exists because someone has chosen to gather it, and the use of data has social and ethical consequences.

Courses should include material on the verification of photos (through metadata or crowdsourcing) and ethical considerations surrounding leaked or sensitive data, as well as source protection and digital security in conditions of pervasive surveillance.

Skills to integrate: Becoming familiar with a range of ethical questions surrounding the use of data. Scrutinizing data for bias, errors, and incompleteness.

Possible assignments:

  • Prepare a critical response paper on legal and ethical concerns surrounding leaked data. This could take the form of an essay or even a mock editorial responding to a sensitive story.
  • File a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) or other public records request, then follow up with needed negotiations. This may be framed as preparation for a project in a subsequent term, if and when the records come through.

History of Journalism

How and why to integrate data: Understanding history is especially valuable during times of apparent change. To observe the field of journalism evolving over the centuries can make journalism students more conscious participants in the process of inventing its future. It may also help to temper the widespread view that journalism is witnessing unprecedented upheaval due to technology. Looking back, we see that institutions come and go, new technologies are often disruptive before settling into routine, and the mission and practice of the profession are perennially under revision. Data and computation are in many ways emblematic of our time, but not exclusive to it. These topics have a long history in journalism. This class needs to tell that story.

Two distinct strands of historical concern should be covered. One is to recount the historical uses of data in the news. For example, a striking and memorable early case of data-driven journalism dates to the antebellum period in the United States, when Harriet Beecher Stowe compiled the accounts of several escaped slaves, aggregated advertisements from Southern newspapers offering rewards for their return, and published several tables of data as a rebuttal to claims that her novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin had exaggerated the reality of slavery. Likewise, one might point to Philip Meyer’s use of data to undermine racial stereotypes in the coverage of the 1967 Detroit riots. These two cases highlight the enduring value of data for asserting truths that might otherwise be denied. More broadly, where these stories place data journalism in historical context, it will not only form a canon to orient students in this area of practice, but it will also reveal that data journalism, for all its glamorous novelty, is rooted in a tradition of quality work.

Skills to integrate: Acquiring a sense of how the journalistic profession has developed over time, especially in terms of how journalists have chosen to depict the world to their audiences. Appreciating how data and computational journalism fit into historical context.

Possible assignments:

  • Homework: Find and analyze a chart, graph, map, or other data visualization published in a newspaper at least 50 years ago.
  • Term paper: Consider a contemporary concern surrounding emerging technology, such as algorithmic transparency or the Snowden leaks, in the context of other historical cases.

Advanced Classes and Electives: Integrating Data and Computation

Investigative Reporting

How and why to integrate data: Many of the tools and methods of computational and data-driven journalism were developed through investigative reporting. Fluency with spreadsheets, databases, and other mainstays of computer-assisted reporting will enable students to conduct deep investigations with the full range of resources at their disposal.

Skills to integrate: Compiling the backgrounds of people and organizations with the use of data. Turning documents into data. Making public records requests and negotiating for data.

Possible assignments:

  • Tracing shell company ownership through public records.
  • Examining medical device reports for problems in devices sold by specific companies.

Narrative Reporting and Feature Writing

How and why to integrate data: Great feature writing is built on facts and compelling narratives. This course should incorporate some data-driven and computer-assisted reporting methods, teaching students to frame, explain, and give context to data that will help to tell their story. This class should highlight that words and numbers are both sources of data. The instructor may consider inviting a guest lecture from a professor in the digital humanities to highlight novel approaches developed in this field for understanding literature and the arts through a computational lens.

Skills to integrate: General grasp of using numbers to support a narrative. Using spreadsheets to organize chronologies of the main characters in the course of reporting. Using large-scale textual analysis tools to organize, index, and annotate documents.

Possible assignments:

  • Use Overview or Document Cloud to explore a large cache of documents, such as the Congressional Record, Wikipedia, or a recent leak.
  • Organize reporting for a long-form narrative piece by placing sources, quotes, and chronologies in a spreadsheet.
  • Analyze tax return (IRS Form 990) data on arts nonprofits to evaluate their finances.

Social Media Skills

How and why to integrate data: The use of social media by contemporary news organizations goes hand in hand with the use of analytics to drive traffic. If students are taught to run social media feeds, they also should be taught to understand the analytics for these platforms. Moreover, the ability to mine the social web to interpret social trends and public opinion will be an asset in reporting.

Skills to integrate: Gathering and interpreting web analytics. Scraping or otherwise aggregating social media content for analysis use in a story.

Possible assignments:

  • Use Twitter analytics to determine the rate of growth in followers, retweeting activity, or the most popular stories, sections, writers, and days of the week.
  • Use Google analytics to aggregate several streams of traffic data and generate more complicated (second-order) insights.
  • Use Google Trends to do a story on patterns in search data.
  • Analyze social media data to produce chart of attention around a recent news event.
  • (Advanced) Use scraped Twitter data to tell a story (perhaps through sentiment analysis).

Business and Economic Reporting

How and why to integrate data: The ability to gather, analyze, and critique financial data is an essential component of business reporting. Many classes already include some instruction on reading and interpreting data. As more of this data has become generally available, while some of it has become more complicated and difficult to interpret, business reporting classes will need to adapt and offer more advanced instruction.

Skills to integrate: The ability to gather and analyze data from a variety of sources, including Bloomberg terminals and APIs (application programming interfaces) for financial information. Advanced spreadsheet analysis and financial/budget analysis training.

Possible assignments:

  • Spreadsheet assignment: find a story in a company’s public financial statements.
  • Build a personal dashboard of APIs to track financial information for a story.
  • Analyze whether you can predict earnings or stock price through a factor like CEO salary.

Digital Design and Visual Communication

How and why to integrate data: Digital design courses in journalism schools serve to introduce students to layout design, editorial graphics, and the principles of visual critique. In order to integrate data and computation, such a course should include material on data visualization and at least an introduction to the idea of news apps and web development.

Skills to integrate: Basic charts, graphs, and maps. A visual critique to know which styles of visualization are good for which kinds of data and to pinpoint cases in which visual forms can conceal or distort the data.

Possible assignments:

  • Find a data visualization you like, then dissect, explain, analyze, and critique it.
  • Find some data, identify what’s interesting about it, and visualize your findings.
  • Mock up (design, don’t program) a news app.

Global and International Reporting

How and why to integrate data: When journalists cover other countries, numbers will often help both them and their audience to picture these unfamiliar and often complicated matters with greater clarity. A global reporting class should teach students to find, assess, and accurately convey facts and figures about foreign countries and subjects with an international scope. On a deeper level, such a class should teach students to find stories by gathering and scrutinizing data from global sources.

Skills to integrate: How to gather, evaluate, and use data from multiple international sources. How to evaluate what data can communicate about international development patterns. How to use data to complete an investigative project focused on an international issue.

Possible assignments:

  • Use a data set from a large international organization such as the UN to find a story, then learn how the organization gathered its data and discuss the limitations and biases that may result.
  • Find data that deepens your understanding of an international story in the news, complicates the prevailing narrative, or reveals another side of it.

Science and Environmental Reporting

How and why to integrate data: Data is a crucial component of scientific topics in the news. The ability to interpret research papers and scrutinize experimental methods will make students far better reporters on these subjects. Students should emerge from this class with an understanding of the scientific method, randomized controlled experiments, statistical significance, and other factors that they will encounter while reporting on topics in science and the environment. If possible, they should also have the opportunity to use their own data sources, such as sensors for air or water quality.

Skills to integrate: How to gather, evaluate, and use data on specialized scientific topics, and to critically assess published research.

Possible assignments:

  • Reading and analyzing data stories covering these topics and reverse engineering how the reporters told this story.
  • Drafting data analysis of key data sets and story pitch memos.
  • Reading a research paper, evaluating the evidence (including the statistical arguments used), and summarizing in plain language for a non-technical reader.
  • Setting up a sensor network to test air quality across campus (class project).

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