Should journalists learn how to code? They already do. (And yes, they should)

Shorthand - and you think coding is bad?

Shorthand image by Mike Atherton

So Olga Khazan had a bad experience with learning how to code (more on that later) and Steve Buttry can think of 6 reasons why journalists should learn how to do just that. The zombie debate ‘Should journalists learn to code?’ stiffens and groans once more, so I thought I’d prod it a little.

Journalists already learn to code. In the UK they learn shorthand – possibly the most esoteric code there ever was. We also learn a particular coding language: English. This language is taught in schools and involves using a series of 26 characters to encode objects, actions, and descriptions. You may have a similar language you have to learn in your own country. What a drag.

Why do we learn these languages? To save time, and to improve accuracy – two things that should be important to every journalist.

Journalism is not web design

‘Coding’ should be important to journalists for the same reasons. It saves time. It improves accuracy.

Olga’s bad experience with learning code appears to revolve entirely around presenting information – not gathering it. So she is right to say that her effort would have been better spent honing another code: her English (while using free tools to visualise data).

When I first began teaching online journalism many universities taught it like desktop publishing: teaching HTML and how to create a webpage. Having worked on websites I knew this was a largely irrelevant skill, and I never asked them to design websites in HTML. As Olga points out:

“If you’re a journalist, you don’t need to learn CSS because your newsroom boss is never going to run up to your desk and ask you to immediately change all the site’s text from black to teal. And the back-end of your company’s content management system usually has enough self-explanatory buttons (as in, “if it looks like a horizontal line, it will make a horizontal line”) to help you navigate all of its various HTML options, so feel free to forget that one too.”

So why, ten years on, are journalism graduates still having to learn this?

Coding as shorthand

Shorthand provides a useful starting point here. If journalists can learn shorthand, they can certainly learn programming. The point is not the language but the result.

(This was the problem that I set out to tackle with Scraping for Journalists: I saw journalists trying to learn programming languages in the same way they would try to learn the history of Italy, without any particular objective.)

Flowchart: Should journalists learn to code

Should journalists learn to code – image by David Holmes

Code is a key infrastructure that we work in as journalists: if we understand it, we can move across it much more effectively. If it is invisible to us, we cannot adapt it, we cannot scrutinise it. We are, in short, subject to it.

Which brings me to the most important aspect of code…

Code is law

Lawrence Lessig made the point over a decade ago that code is law:

“Ours is the age of cyberspace. It, too, has a regulator. This regulator, too, threatens liberty. But so obsessed are we with the idea that liberty means “freedom from government” that we don’t even see the regulation in this new space. We therefore don’t see the threat to liberty that this regulation presents.

“This regulator is code—the software and hardware that make cyberspace as it is. This code, or architecture, sets the terms on which life in cyberspace is experienced. It determines how easy it is to protect privacy, or how easy it is to censor speech. It determines whether access to information is general or whether information is zoned. It affects who sees what, or what is monitored. In a host of ways that one cannot begin to see unless one begins to understand the nature of this code, the code of cyberspace regulates.”

Journalists should be concerned with how they are regulated and restricted, in all sorts of ways:

The last two, Olga rightly points out, are more likely to be done by developers or designers with more advanced, specialist skills. But it doesn’t mean they have to. Tools like Knight’s freeDive provide an easy way to create interactive databases from a simple Google spreadsheet, and reading a Wikipedia entry on JavaScript is no substitute for having a play yourself, however amateurish the results may be.

A couple years ago I would have said journalists did not have to learn how to code. But I’ve come to believe ‘code’ is more than just ‘programming’. It’s about how our world works.

Every journalist should aspire to know that.


10 thoughts on “Should journalists learn how to code? They already do. (And yes, they should)

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