The digital revolution ushered in fundamental changes in how information is structured. It also brought changes in how governments and corporations use information to exercise power. Governments now influence communities through the management of large data sets, such as in the allocation of services through predictive policing. They hold exclusive access to data that would help us to understand which policies are working, or how vulnerable populations are affected by the exercise of public policy. Corporations write opaque algorithms to determine who gets insurance at what price. These developments challenge journalism to move well beyond adaptation to social media or the adoption of new technologies for visualization. They implicate journalism’s public purpose. Encouragingly, a new facet of journalistic practice is emerging, adapting technology to reporting in the public interest.

This is an important reason why we must teach journalists to work with data: There are vital questions to be asked that require numeracy, and there are big stories to find and tell in new ways. The intellectual history of journalism reveals a continuous interrogation of emerging technologies for their relevance to the profession’s public purpose and concerns. We need journalists to be positioned to assess techniques like natural language processing and facial recognition for their relevance and promise as tools of reporting, as well as for their ethical dangers.

This is where journalism education may play a leadership role. Integrating computation, data science, and other emerging technologies into public-spirited reporting is an ideal mission for journalism. These schools can access the full resources of a university. The mission also relieves journalism educators of the risk of teaching perishable digital skills and perishable platforms. Data journalism curricula respond to objective change in the sheer amount of information that is stored digitally today – information that requires computation to access and interrogate. Teaching journalists to be literate about these changes and some to be specialists requires committing ourselves to using data, computation, and emerging technologies as essential tools of our profession.

Steve Coll
Dean & Henry R. Luce Professor
Columbia Journalism School

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