Teaching Data Fundamentals: Rows and Columns

Data journalism professors say that the foundational data class is the most important because it lays down key mindsets and skills that are a prerequisite for more advanced learning. Steve Doig of ASU believes the core data syllabus should consist of negotiating for data, thinking critically about data, and using spreadsheets to analyze data.

It is difficult to overstate the value of spreadsheets for managing information. When we asked former CUNY professor Amanda Hickman, now an Open Lab senior fellow at BuzzFeed, how she defines data, she replied, “anything tabular.”

For the foundational computer-assisted reporting classes, the syllabus analysis and interviews indicate that the coursework is comprehensive, providing a strong base in critical thinking and basic concepts surrounding the use of data to find and tell stories. Students are taught similar concepts: critical thinking and developing a “data frame of mind”—in other words, being able to question data in a disciplined way, make sense of discrepancies, and find the underlying patterns and outliers that are important to the analysis.

Most of the classes include some type of hands-on learning. Many of them focus first on spreadsheets, then SQL, followed by mapping and statistical concepts. Others include basic data visualization, using Tableau or Google Fusion as a way into the subject. Multiple professors said the hands-on approach reinforces the critical thinking concepts, including helping students to understand what structured data look like and how information of any kind can be structured for better understanding.

Another key feature of the 63 syllabi we reviewed was an exercise in requesting and negotiating for data from a governmental body. Dan Keating, who works at the Washington Post and teaches a long-standing class in computer-assisted reporting at the University of Maryland, said that finding what “no one has ever known before” is a defining part of his class.

Many CAR courses break down this way:

Hard Skills

  • Searching for and finding documents and data that enable the journalist to make statements of fact, including public requests, deep research, and scraping skills
  • Understanding data structures and how to clean and standardize data into a form that is useful
  • Analyzing data using spreadsheets, databases, mapping, and visualization
  • Learning advanced statistical methods that illuminate data

Guiding concepts

  • Finding what “no one has known before”
  • Developing data-driven storytelling techniques, including how to use numbers effectively in prose and how to tell a story visually
  • Thinking of data as an asset in the reporting process

Whether following the guiding concepts or applying the hard skills, journalism students today must be well grounded in both the importance of data and the tools to use data in storytelling. “If you don’t deal with data as a journalist, you’re shutting yourself down,” said McGinty of the Wall Street Journal.

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