Model 5: Advanced Graduate Degree: Emerging Journalistic Techniques and Technologies

Investigative reporting is in many ways the research and development wing of journalism. According to Brant Houston, “It’s the only place where people have had an extensive amount of time to try out new techniques.”

CAR, data journalism, and computational journalism are some of the clearest examples of this phenomenon at work. These practices have developed where reporters have had the time or inclination to work with new tools and platforms. Universities are ideally suited to cultivate this stance toward journalistic practice—not merely teaching the wisdom of the field as it exists, but developing entirely new approaches based on encounters with other disciplines and unexplored tools.

If journalism schools were to take up the mantle of encouraging work that seems to happen only under these permissive conditions—not just through grants and innovation labs, but perhaps through coursework as well—then universities could also act as R&D labs in a way that investigative reporting has in the past.

This curriculum is in many ways the least structured and most speculative one we offer. It is an open question whether these degrees should be offered at the master’s or doctoral level. One might also ask whether the degree should require any coursework or simply provide an open platform for research.

Structure and Topics

One objective for this program would be to help teach algorithms for journalism, machine learning, and artificial intelligence.

Drones and virtual reality are two platforms that are being actively explored for their journalistic potential. Matt Waite established the Drone Journalism Lab at the University of Nebraska precisely to explore the journalistic applications of these devices. Likewise, the Brown Institute at Columbia has sponsored several Magic Grants to support teams of journalists exploring the narrative potential of immersive virtual reality.

Many other emerging technologies have been recognized for their journalistic potential. At the time of our writing, immersive virtual reality headsets seem poised to enter the market to enthusiastic reception. Augmented reality presents similar possibilities: broadcast journalists may soon arrive in our living rooms as holograms.

The point is not to speculate on the arrival of these devices, nor to promote innovation for its own sake, but to consider the role of journalism schools in developing and shaping the use of new devices.

Setting and Gear for Emerging Technology Labs

Although many coding and design projects may require nothing more than a laptop, a variety of hardware should be on hand for students interested in experimenting with sensors and other hardware that can be used for journalistic projects.

Ideally, cheap devices and components can be provided on an honor system, and more expensive gear checked out through an equipment room. A thriving example of this model is the Interactive Telecommunications Program at New York University. The program also designates a few shelves for donating useful scrap materials, such as old electronics to be dismantled for components or sheer curiosity.

A Word on Safety

Most innovation labs will feature at least one tool or device that requires safety training. Most journalism students will arrive without having had experience handling soldering irons or electrical wiring.

Any lab that includes these devices must provide some safety infrastructure. Soldering irons should be used with some means of ventilation. Fire hazards require a nearby extinguisher. And many circumstances may require safety gloves or goggles.

When Amanda Hickman arrived at the BuzzFeed lab in San Francisco, one of her first tasks was to evaluate safety. The BuzzFeed team has purchased safety goggles and fire extinguishers, for example, because it is working with saws and soldering irons.

Tinkering equipment can be quite cheap, but any technology lab must cover some basics. These components are the bread and butter of hacker and maker circles, so they are easy to find. Because they offer such useful inroads to experimenting with technology, they are valuable for journalism schools to cultivate spaces of innovation.

Most electrical prototyping starts with a solderless breadboard, a flat plastic case with an underlying grid of connections or building circuits. A simple electronic device like an air quality meter can be built from scratch by placing components like wires, resistors, knobs, buttons, and sensors across the grid. And connecting a breadboard device to a simple computer like an Arduino or a Raspberry Pi enables users to issue commands and gather data from the equipment. A starter set for such a project would generally run under $100, far less than cameras and other equipment that journalism students are often required to purchase.

Beyond the small computers used for prototyping, more substantial computers should be on hand for projects that call for it. If possible, an emerging technologies lab should have machines that allow students to gain firsthand experience working with news-bound technology such as immersive 3D cameras, VR headsets, and drones instead of relying on secondhand accounts. These skills and literacies fit into a larger constellation of technical concerns that may give rise to media innovation along unforeseen paths.

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