How Spain’s First Data Journalism MA Came to Life


“There is something about not just being able to think and act like a programmer but also to be able to think and act like a journalist, which is quite demanding. It’s an unusual skill set. Newsrooms are crying out for these skills."

Emily Bell, director of the Tow Center for Digital Journalism, made this statement recently in a Nieman Journalism Lab article about a new post-baccalaureate programme the Center is offering, which teaches computer science for journalism.

This belief, that students need to be able to manage computer and data science, as well as journalism, in order to be well prepared for the media world they are graduating into, is starting to reshape journalistic education around the world. Several pioneering institutions are embarking on such initiatives, including the University of Hong Kong, Tilburg University in the Netherlands, the Rey Juan Carlos University in Spain, Columbia and New York University in the United States, and others.

This series of interviews takes you behind the scenes of some of these initiatives. For the first article in this series, we interviewed Marcos García Rey, the coordinator of the Master’s programme in investigative reporting, data journalism, and visualisation offered by the Rey Juan Carlos University in Madrid, in partnership with the Spanish daily newspaper El Mundo.

Why is a data journalism MA necessary in your opinion?

"Our Master’s degree deals with investigative reporting, data-driven journalism and data visualisation, with the investigation component being at the cornerstone of the program. How is it possible, nowadays, to conduct investigative journalism without coping with databases and making the used data accessible to the public in an interactive format?

In all the journalistic investigations in which I have been involved, data-driven reporting played a huge role. So today it would not be appropriate to train young investigative reporters without teaching them the most avant-garde techniques in data journalism and multimedia storytelling.”

Marcos García Rey, Madrid's data journalism MA co-founder and coordinator.

How did the idea for the programme come about?

"Some day back in early 2012, Antonio Rubio, a renowned Spanish reporter, my ICIJ colleague Mar Cabra, and I, talked about the possibility of pioneering an MA in investigative data-driven journalism in Spain. After some brainstorming meetings and a lot of coffee, we designed a programme and decided to invite on board an academic institution and a media outlet capable of launching it. We got Madrid-based Rey Juan Carlos University and the newspaper El Mundo to join the project. The first edition of our MA was launched in November 2012."

What were the costs of setting up this programme and how is it supported financially?

"The costs of setting up the project were insignificant as Antonio, Mar, and I, essentially worked ‘gratis et amore’ for some months in order to get the project up and running.

As far as funding is concerned, the programme is basically supported in a couple of ways. The core funding derives from the enrolment fees paid by the students. Additionally, Google and the Spanish CaixaBank grant a number of scholarships that cover half of the total amount of the registration fees. These two companies are really engaged in the publication of accountable and well-documented stories, so both of them are backing our project."

Can you describe the steps of setting up such a programme for someone who would like to embark on a similar project?

"First of all, you need to be passionate about investigative and data journalism, and to aspire to always provide the best and most solid version of the truth in your stories. Then try to ask yourself if you feel capable of getting together a group of international professionals who can teach highly motivated students. If so, the final and probably the most complicated step is to involve an academic institution that can provide the students with an accredited degree."

What kind of specialties does the staff cover?

"The eleven-month educational programme is organised around four main themes:

  1. Investigative reporting, which includes the methods and techniques of investigative journalism, case studies, solid training in storytelling, and practical workshops, among other exercises.
  2. Data-driven journalism, which covers everything from the basics - the use of Excel - to the most avant-garde techniques and tools. Alumni are encouraged to tell journalistic stories based on data, and I emphasise journalistic stories because many media outlets are currently forgetting the journalistic aspect when they publish data-driven journalistic articles. As data-driven journalism becomes fashionable, some media and reporters are quite happy publishing graphics and visualisations based on badly compiled data or without providing proper context to the story.
  3. Data visualisation. This theme covers the essential skills and tools used to create and publish visualisations: charts, graphics, tables, maps, etc.
  4. Transparency and the right to access public information. We provide the necessary skills to write effective public records requests in Spain and worldwide."


What is the profile of the students who are accepted for this MA?

"They are mostly junior journalists who want to improve their competencies and skills. Fifteen alumni from nine different countries joined the first edition that is about to end. Their average age is 29. The profile of the candidates who have registered so far to our second edition, which starts in November 2013, is very similar."

Are there any teaching materials or reading lists from this MA available online for the public?

"Not yet. We are thinking of releasing some training materials in the mid-term. However so far we have preferred to follow the path of the most prestigious academic institutions that are very cautious about making public their detailed programmes and educational materials. For instance, the Columbia Journalism School hardly divulges its wonderful case study exercises."