Teaching data journalism: A challenge for every university


Awareness that data journalism is a serious and valuable part of contemporary journalism has well and truly dawned. There were, and hopefully always will be, inventive frontrunners finding new ways to fulfil journalism’s time-honoured mission, using the latest tools available.

What follows is the slower induction of the key ideas that they have trailblazed into the curriculum of everyday journalism education. And this is no small thing.

Like many journalism educators, I was initially employed by a university because I had worked as a journalist for many years and can bring real world experiences into the classroom.  I’ve been doing this for a decade and the fundamentals of journalism haven’t changed that much. But data journalism presents a bundle of new challenges. I don’t have lived experience of being a data journalist to draw on, and neither do my colleagues. Data journalism is all-at-once the coolest, hardest and fastest changing kind of journalism there is and that’s a hard thing to suddenly become competent enough in to stand up and teach. And yet that’s my job: to train people to be the journalists the future needs.

This was my dilemma in early 2016. My way-forward was research. I wrote an academic paper that involved reviewing the literature and interviewing 35 other Australian journalism academics about what they were doing about the problem. The paper is here.

In brief though, I found that I was not alone. The others agreed (almost unanimously) that upskilling was an issue. Very few could access funding to bring in experts to teach students, or support staff. Most were trying to cram their own upskilling into their already overflowing workloads and puzzling over what specifically they should dedicate their limited upskilling time to learning. Should it be Tableau, or more Excel, or coding or testing data scrapers, or data visualisation tools?

The next ugliest problem was squeezing it into crammed curricula, already bursting at the seams because of pressure to produce graduates who can work on every platform.

Then, there are the students themselves. They present with a mix of skill levels, which is tricky enough, but in this case the mix is due largely to a fascinating phenomenon called ‘math aversion’. It’s a social curse and I, for one, would love to see it being tackled at its roots. In the paper, I cite researchers who have looked more deeply into it and come to the conclusion that in some cultures people are encouraged early on to think of themselves as ‘number people’ or ‘word people’, and that this persists through life and leads to some people having an actual aversion to numbers.

Quotes from my study that point to this being a problem when it comes to incorporating data journalism into Australian tertiary courses include:

“The challenge of getting them pay attention once you mention numbers”

“It’s about making them comfortable with numbers and understanding that numbers are at the heart of almost every story”

“It takes a lot of time convincing them that they can do this without being particularly mathematically literate”

“I literally had students saying I’m doing journalism because I’m good at writing not math”

 “most are [math averse], and some are very vocal about it”

My own data journalism course runs in the August-November semester, and in 2016 and 2017 I tackled this issue by making class one about math aversion. We talked about it, confessed to having it and made a pact to deal with it as if we were in recovery mode, feeling the fear and doing it anyway. I took heed of what others in my study said, in comments like: “I map everything step-by-step, so they don’t get frightened”, and “we have to find workarounds like online percentage converters”. It’s an approach that, according to the student feedback at the end of semester, is working but it means that our exploration of the intricacies of cutting edge data journalism is minimal for now. But we are laying the groundwork, and by tackling the fears we are setting people up for lifetimes of learning.

Other helpful advice that emerged from the study was to be bold about blended learning. One of my respondents said she required students to complete Lynda.com’s Excel Five Day Challenge before starting her course and another said she encouraged students to use Lynda.com when they were stuck. In my own course, I started offering a few marks in return for a completion certificate from a Lynda.com Excel course of their choice. This was a good precursor to our other Excel-based activities, as it allowed those lacking the basics to get them, while students who knew the basics could build on their skills. While not all universities subscribe to Lynda.com, it’s a good resource for those that do, and there are many other similar resources available online.

The key insight that came from the literature review section of the study was that data journalism is clearly not just one thing. Drawing on the conclusions from a number of studies that looked at the kind of data journalism that was being practiced and published around the world, distinctions can be made between ‘decorative’ data visualisation; journalism demonstrating mature quantitative literacy; and the geekier hacking/coding end of things.

At the point of publication these things can all conflate, when hacked data is presented in an infographic, but as skills for incorporation into a course it can be useful to distinguish them.

My study found that most of the data journalism being taught was at the visualisation end, and that very little of it was at the hacking/coding end. But as we enter 2018, I suspect that the space is moving fast and changing.

Data scraping software is proliferating, there’s now a Chrome extension and several apps available that make it possible to go to a website and pick elements that you want to harvest into an Excel sheet. This can be done on campus in a single tutorial class, yielding some fresh data to sort and find stories in.

In another single class, pivot tables can be introduced and mastered, thanks to handy online tutorials. All that is required is the will,  a staff member who has upskilled enough to know how, and a good data set available.

However, finding good current, newsworthy data sets to use in the classroom is another nightmare, as nothing in this space stands still for long. Between writing the unit plan and delivering a class, a government department can convert its accessible data files to pdfs to prevent journalists from mining them for stories using pivot tables. I wish there was more outrage from media bodies when this happens, and I hope that growing awareness of the way data journalism can enable newsrooms to break free from the PR-drip will precipitate it, but I recognise that as an optimistic position.

In the meantime, my message to others interested in the progress of data journalism in the academy is that we are working on it. We are talking to each other and sharing success and failure stories, as well as teaching materials. There will be a special issue of Asia Pacific Media Educator on the topic coming out in June 2018. If you would like to contribute an article or commentary to it, please .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address). The deadline is January 30, 2018.

Image: GW Public Health.