FAQ: Teaching data journalism

In the latest in the FAQ series, I’m sharing my answers to questions from a trainer in Chile:

What are the main difficulties to teach data journalism at universities?

The main difficulties in my experience are cultural and technical.

Culturally many students are attracted to journalism as an arts subject, and see data journalism as being about maths or programming. (Of course, I would say it’s about creativity and communication!)

Put another way: at the start of their career most student journalists are often more focused on telling stories than finding them; or in communicating to an audience rather than serving a community.

So even when they do data journalism, they tend to lean towards the visualisation aspect rather than techniques for digging into data.

Technically the difficulty is choosing how to spend what might be limited time. There are very simple aspects of data journalism to teach, but also a vast range of skills that the genre takes in: scraping, advanced search, FOI, cleaning, statistics, analysis, mapping, visual design, interactivity, and so on.

The amount of class time that can be devoted to data journalism (and tutors’ skills) dictates students’ skillset and perceptions.

How do we design curricula and spaces for data journalism?

I’m a little wary of having separate ‘data journalism’ modules. At Birmingham City University I combine data with multimedia because I don’t want students to just tell data stories with charts and maps: I want them to use the data as a springboard to find human stories which work well in video or audio.

But you need a tutor who can teach both – or a team-teaching approach which can be logistically challenging. (At City University we assess them on how the story is communicated, with options for video and audio, but that is taught in other modules.)

I think certain aspects like statistics, advanced search and right to information laws should be taught in basic classes around law, accuracy, and research. Otherwise you put too much pressure on the ‘data journalism’ module to teach what should be universal skills.

Physical spaces I don’t feel are important in any way different to journalism teaching generally: although students obviously need access to a computer and the web, and ideally the ability to install software and browser plugins.

Are there differences between teaching students versus training professional reporters?

Most people assume that students, being young and web-native, take to data journalism better. My experience is that isn’t always the case.

Certainly, intellectually many students are aware of the demand for data journalism skills, but individually, as I say above, at the start of their career many student journalists are focused on learning the technicalities of telling a story rather than finding it. (Of course, when it comes to applying for jobs these days the ability to write a story isn’t what sets someone apart, but many people think they’ll be the exception.)

Mid-career journalists have generally mastered those technicalities and become more interested in exclusive stories and digging deeper. Data journalism at that point becomes very relevant.

Of course, journalists even further into their career have often mastered a different type of exclusive based on contacts and other skills, and feel they have less need to learn new tricks, so they can be least interested. It depends on the individual.

What aspects should not be overlooked when forming a data journalism team?

Web development and statistics. It’s one thing to have people who can get data and find stories in that – but if you want to create tools for your users or your journalists, or avoid mistakes or fact-check then you need those rarer skillsets.

Are transparency laws in Latin American countries a plus for data journalism?


How do you see Chile in the development of this kind of journalism?

I’m not very well positioned to comment. Some years ago I trained a Chilean journalist in data journalism and it was interesting to work on generating shape files for different regions in Chile so she could map stories. And also to unlock data in PDFs.

In that sense there’s a lack of foundations for certain things that many journalists take for granted in other countries, but there’s definitely a passion in the region for doing this work, with the likes of ciudadanointeligente.org showing how it can be done not just locally but making waves globally.

2 thoughts on “FAQ: Teaching data journalism

  1. Pingback: What is the main difficulties to teach data journalism at universities? | Liquid Newsroom

  2. Pingback: FAQ: Teaching data journalism – Online Journalism Blog (blog) | F A Q

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