Is data journalism teaching repeating the same mistakes of online journalism teaching? It’s a genuine question: I don’t know the answer, but I’m seeing some parallels, and I’d welcome a proper debate.
Let me explain what I mean: a decade ago teaching online journalism was problematic: few lecturers were able to teach it. Journalism faculties were full of print and broadcast experience, but very few who had worked online.
One of the symptoms of this was a tendency to teach ‘online journalism’ as HTML production, in the same way that desktop publishing was taught, leaving little or no space to explore the editorial qualities of the medium.
What we ended up with was shovelware journalists: graduates who could create their own webpage but not write well for it. Thankfully, that’s now a rarity.
The brain drain
Now look at the picture surrounding data journalism teaching: tutors with experience of data journalism are relatively rare in universities for the same reasons as before.
Financial Times data journalist Martin Stabe once told a class of mine that discussions about data journalism tended to fall into two recurring themes: “It’s easy to do data journalism” or “everyone should learn to code”.
These debates have led to some courses being developed which combine computer science with journalism. On the one hand I’m excited about the potential – but is this the most effective way to create data journalists?
We don’t have classes on spelling
Programming is undoubtedly enormously useful to journalists, but so is spelling, grammar, an understanding of art theory and sound engineering.
But few courses run classes on those topics in isolation from the journalism process. We teach subbing as part of classes that get them working on writing stories. They learn art theory without calling it that, when we teach them how to compose a shot.
Hell, they even learn a little HTML while studying classes on running a news website.
So why take classes in computer science?
If data journalism is “social science on a deadline” then why don’t we get students to take classes from social science? (Arguably just as useful – sociology students investigate some areas with enormous potential for journalism).
Story-led or tool-led
As I say, I don’t have the answers here – only questions.
In this sense programming takes in as wide a range of activities as spelling (after all, spelling and grammar is a code and the alphabet is a technology).
So how do we find space for it within our teaching without making it something outside journalism?
Will we end up with ‘tool-centric’ journalists in the same way as we had shovelware journalists?
Or is programming analogous to a ‘second language’ for students wanting to report in another country?