The coding challenge: an exploration of the increasing role of computing skills in journalism education
Angela Long, Adjunct Lecturer, Dublin Institute of Technology and University of Florida, Gainesville
With nearly all developing platforms of news journalism being digital, skills in manipulating such spaces have become essential for budding journalists. Added to this, the future for serious investigative journalism is identified with being able to understand and interrogate large amounts of public data released online. US institutions have been leading the way in offering courses with a large component of computer science for journalists.
In June 2014, The Irish Times, a respected Dublin broadsheet, published an advertisement for a staff member. This person was to study and analyse company reports, press releases, and other business-related information, and write reports and analyses for the newspaper (and its website, of course). Not so long ago this all would have come under the rubric of “Business News Reporter”.
But in fact, the ad was headed “Digital Analyst”.
I quote this as an indication of the change that has occurred in the requirements and definition of a journalist in the online era of the 21st century. As I will argue, the responsibilities of journalism educators who wish to preserve the integrity and feasibility of journalism as a career include a thorough education in digital skills and use of sophisticated data interrogation software.
This is more than a scare-mongering exercise, bemoaning the triumph of the technologically literate. Skye Doherty of the University of Queensland, asks, in a recent paper, “Will the geeks inherit the newsroom?”
Part of the answer is that the “geeks” (defined as people especially skilled and interested in computing) will be essential to the workings of the newsroom, and the leading practitioners in that newsroom will have to understand the language of the technical experts, even if they are not fluent themselves.
This paper examines competing models for the formation of a viable 21st century journalist. How much do educators need to teach the skills of putting the story together, and how much the techniques for getting that story out to a digital audience? And, further more, what techniques should routinely be taught on syllabi for measuring audience reaction?
The outlook for tomorrow’s journalists, it increasingly appears, is a combined computer science and journalism degree. It’s an unpleasant vista for those of us to whom changing a typewriter ribbon was a challenge. But if the upcoming generations are to be switched on to the value of good journalism, of sacred facts as well as free comment, the people behind professional journalism, educators and editors alike, must deal with the realities of working the new platforms.
Since news journalism emerged several hundred years ago, these characteristics have distinguished the best practitioners: a quick wit; an eye for significant developments in the society around them; a thirst to make sure the information was accurate; a desire to hold the powerful to account; and considerable writing skill. Or, if you prefer, in the famous words of Nicholas Tomalin, “rat-like cunning, a plausible manner, and a little literary ability” (Randall 2007).
But, as Bell, Shirky and Anderson (2012) make clear, these prescriptions alone are becoming obsolete. In their place, arises the need for a confection of coding skill, engineering aptitude, self-publicising skill, marketing ruthlessness – and a small dose of that “literary ability”.
Change, as Alvin Toffler observed, can produce a “Future Shock” when past certainties and supports are eroded, or seem to be in a constant state of flux. News journalism in the 21st century is a prime example of this. Huge changes have taken place in 40 years – from when, I sadly confess, my career started – and accelerated almost unbearably in the past 10, with the rise of social media and the casual tyranny of the Tweet. Broadly, the underlying transformation has been from one reporter to many, to many voices to many other voices. Everyone can take part in the conversation that answers the question “What’s happening?”, with subject matter that ranges from tasty pizza to the wholesale death and destruction of Gaza. There is a low bar to entry, and not much editing.
With this change came the fear that has stalked ‘legacy’ newsrooms for the past decade: apart from the fear of going broke, it’s the fear of looking digitally illiterate, as described by Arthur Gregg Sulzberger, scion of The New York Times publishing dynasty:
“we … are at risk of becoming known as a place that does not fully understand, reward, and celebrate digital skills”. (2014)
The august New York Times is still a repository of some of the world’s finest journalism. But it is losing money hand over fist as it tries, like all traditional news organisations, to navigate the world wherein news is increasingly regarded as something that comes for free. It, and countless other newspapers, radio networks and television stations, want to “surf” the net and the network of links which the young consumer of news uses. These organisations have to develop genuine online presences, especially those that work on mobile phones. It is not just a matter of forcing editorial staff on to Twitter and Facebook, so that their every waking moment is charged with the responsibility to communicate to the ‘audience’. It is a matter of being professional and advanced in use of online material, and the production of explanations of events – or stories, as we used to call them.
Practically, the skills needed to stay on top of the rapid technical evolution of digital are of concern to educators because they have to be given a serious weighting, and not just a nod to ‘social media use’ or a few sessions on the open data websites beginning to be provided by government and other authorities.
Is it more important to teach a student to code, or to write a clear and compelling account of white-collar fraud? Should educators make sure students have paramount regard for accuracy, or are completely comfortable with the latest picture apps? Can we do both- with the same staff and the same students?
We can’t keep going blindly into the future doing the same thing as educators– that famous definition of madness, attributed to Albert Einstein, is of doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result. It is acknowledged that some educational institutions are already moving in this direction, as described below, but more needs to be done, more quickly.
Emily Bell studied jurisprudence at university. But she has been a very successful editor of digital content at The Guardian, and now heads the Tow Centre for Digital Journalism at Columbia. According to Bell, and co-authors Shirky and Anderson in their essay on Post-Industrial Journalism, journalists should learn to code. Not all must do it an advanced level, but they must, these experts say, be able to communicate with people who can.
“Journalists should learn to code. It’s true that to be fluent and useful in many programming languages requires very highly developed skills; not every journalist will be able to do this, and not every journalist should do this. But every journalist needs to understand at a basic literacy level what code is, what it can do, and how to communicate with those who are more proficient.”
Bell herself, in a 2013 article, was quoted as saying: “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.”
If journalists are not to be comprehensively skilled in programming skills, they must now at least comprehend them. The analogy strikes me of liaising with the page designers when I worked at The Sunday Times – I didn’t have their talents, but we could talk about the aim of the page, and how to achieve that stylistically. But there is a problem with this collegial arrangement, and it’s the body count: in the dear departed times, there were specialist layout people and designers. There were even compositors and printers. And photographers.
But in the cash-strapped 21st century, that is too many people. News organisations are cutting back on staff. This is a comment in the US Pew Research Centre’s comprehensive report, State of the Media 2014:
“…the growth in new digital full-time journalism jobs seems to have compensated for only a modest percentage of the lost legacy jobs in newspaper newsrooms alone in the past decade. From 2003 to 2012, the American Society of News Editors documented a loss of 16,200 full-time newspaper newsroom jobs while Ad Age recorded a decline of 38,000 magazine jobs.”
Bradley Johnson of AdAge told the International Business Times in October 2012 that “…old-line media is losing jobs faster than digital media is gaining them”.
The sacred place that many journalism educators, especially those with a background in print or “serious” documentary, accord to writing skill, to grammar, syntax, word choice, is also under attack. Sarah Cohen, former database editor of the Washington Post, and now a professor at Duke University, says: “There’s a problem with the way things are organized in newsrooms…” [and that problem is….] “Editors are word people and until that changes it will be hard to get reporters to focus on anything but words.”
At the Polis journalism conference in London in March 2014, Eric Newton of the US Knight Foundation, spoke of the necessity for journalists to know coding, be happy with algorithms, and the ‘newbots’ of the application world. The following attitude, he said, has to change: “My God, we’re word people, we can’t possibly know anything about math.”
The birth pangs of a brave new world appear to be piecemeal and jerky. The US is embracing the hybrid education model the most but then it also has the most universities and, in some areas at least, the money.
Columbia in New York appears to be the first major institution to offer a composite masters’ course combining journalism and computer science, which started in 2011. With no lack of ambition, the course literature proclaims: “Our goal is to educate a new generation of people who can refine and create news-gathering and digital media technologies and redefine journalism as we know it.”
Major components of the Columbia course are coding, data visualization, data mining, and mastery of applications for automated or device-driven journalism.
The course is offered jointly by the journalism faculty and the Fu engineering school. So far there have been two graduating classes – the first consisted of just four people, the second had an enrolment of seven, as has the current crop.
According to media reports the course initially had trouble attracting candidates. That could provide justification for the belief that the techy, scientific, machine-oriented mind is still different from the curious, discursive, word-loving journalistic intellect.
Northeastern in Boston and Creighton in Nebraska are among other US universities which offer similar programs, with varying balances of emphasis on the scientific or the journalistic side. At Creighton, for example, the journalism, media and computing major comprises studies in “computers and scientific thinking”, web design, and information concepts, as well as professional, or what is termed “media writing”.
The Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University in Illinois offers a Master of Science in Journalism to graduates in computer science. (It also has a combined course in which computer science students from the engineering school work with journalism students on projects.) Both started in the past five years. Medill is also the place which gave birth to Narrative Science, the company providing an application to machine-write news stories from statistics, such as those underlying sports stories and business reports. The Medill approach mirrors a belief, in the words of news applications creator Brian Boyer, that it is easier to teach journalism to programmers than programming to journalists.
Online learning, the bane or blessing for educators, offers many options. One American example is Walden University’s Bachelor of Science in Communication – New Media. This, it says, “allows students to learn strategies for employing social networks, wikis, blogs, podcasts, Web conferencing, and other technological tools in organizational communications”. It might be argued that young people – in the 15-25 cohort – know these things anyway in the 21st century, through normal life experience. However, that is a bit of a myth.
As the digital world becomes more sophisticated, some things get easier, but others stay hard for “normal” people, or even for the digital natives, as those who grew up with the internet, apps, Facebook, digital 24/7, have been called.
However, the “ask a young person” solution of older groups has often been shown to be no answer – a young person will know only what they need to know for their daily or professional life. Social media and a bit of Survey Monkey is OK. But beyond – it’s like asking an ordinary motorist to tune up the engine on a Formula One car. Jennifer Smith of the University of Florida’s technology teaching department confirmed to the author (May 2014) that the technical skills of students, with regard to online platforms, are often over-stated.
To return to a quick course survey, around the world there are these emergent courses which recognize the essential part that computer science knowledge will play in journalism education.
In Madrid, the Rey Juan Carlos university has since 2012 offered a combined data use and journalism masters. In the Netherlands, Tilburg University has been running data journalism undergraduate and masters courses for several years. Their course info describes data journalism as: a journalistic process based on analyzing and filtering large data sets for the purpose of creating a new story.
Tilburg lists these as possible careers for those who progress and take the master’s qualification: data journalist, research journalist, data consultant, data researcher, interaction designer, multimedia storyteller, innovation officer, project manager new media, data scientist, researcher.
Note the category “journalist” appears only twice in 10 suggested jobs.
Tilburg’s graduates had been very successful in gaining employment, according to the course director in an email to the author.
In the Philippines, Renalyn Valdez has described a major programme to equip journalism students with advanced skills, but specifically in a range of Mac applications, educating them thoroughly in “…digital technology and design, desktop publishing design for industry, experimental design, advertising and competitive design”.
Note, this is a very design-heavy approach.
In the United Kingdom, where there are at least 90 journalism courses to choose from, these options or similar show some movement towards greater literacy in digital technology: [see version A]
A Bachelor of Science (my italics) with communication and media studies at Brunel University, west London.
Multimedia journalism at London South Bank, which acknowledges: “Journalists today are required to be a little bit of a writer, a photographer, a video maker and a sound person, as well as being able to cut, edit and assemble media in a multimedia environment such as the Web.”
“Multi-platform journalism”, a BA course at the Grimsby Institute, which concentrates on the skills needed to migrate around different digital environments with news articles and packages.
And all courses endorsed by the Broadcast Journalism Training Council adhere to the slogan “setting the standards for multi-platform journalism training”.
But mostly, the offerings are for traditional journalism or media or communications courses, often twinned with politics, a language, a topic specialty such as health or environment – all are marvellous and sound very interesting, but still remain firmly within the bailiwick of the humanities.
In Ireland, where I am based, there have been patches of change, but educational institutions, beholden to government, are not fast on their feet.
Where I teach in Dublin, Dublin Institute of Technology, the new head of the School of Media, and his deputy, don’t have experience in journalism or traditional content creation. Gaming and digital manipulation are their areas of expertise, not news stories or feature articles. Is this the future? Journalism seems to be being relegated to a lesser role in the media superset. Although an experienced journalist is running the department of journalism itself at DIT – but you can see here that journalism is not the big sell to students.
There is of course, the view that the games industry is on the up-and-up, while “legacy” journalism is in its death throes – so it’s much more responsible to educate people for games design careers.
Elsewhere in Ireland, setting aside numerous small journalism courses which have set up offering certificates rather than degrees, we find some movement.
At Dublin City University, the basic journalism BA course information says: “The technologies of journalism change, but the need for it does not.” DCU also offers a Bachelor of Science in MultiMedia, with heavy emphasis on equipment skills. The journalism bachelor’s course is also about to include web-page design and coding as compulsory elements.
Dublin Institute of Technology offers gaming and mobile technology training, with journalism still set in the classic mould with language and politics options. However, a school review is under way at the moment and will no doubt yield changes.
University of Limerick has a well-regarded course in journalism and new media, but nothing bridging the worlds of the computer scientist and the journalist.
It might be argued that the newest thing about many “new” media courses is their use of the adjective. And even that becomes increasingly redundant, as new media grows older and yields less novelty.
The term multimedia storyteller appears in the Tilburg job options list, and is a description seen widely these days. Steven King is assistant professor of multimedia and interactive journalism at the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill. He is described, among other things, as a multimedia storyteller, and also the possessor of a Masters in Computer Science. Interactive has to be a key word in journalism education, as the once-distinct professional roles of print, radio or television specialists are now all concentrated in one digital journalist. But King, as the avatar, also possesses a computer science masters, so he can both understand ways to put his story across, and the mechanisms which allow him to do so.
To pursue a slightly different point, the key word for news journalists in particular, is the ‘d’ word, data – as in big data, open data, data mining, data visualisation, and so on. Tilburg University suggested three professions with data as an integral part of the description.
In our context, what data means is information and statistics gathered by government, or private corporations, that relates to the whole population of a society. For example, data on health, on traffic patterns, on buying habits. Data can be text, figure, visuals. It tells a lot about the society, but for professional news disseminators it must be analysed and handled properly.
Consider the Wikileaks cable dump at the end of 2010. Something like 250,000 cables had been extracted from Chelsea, formerly Bradley, Manning’s cache of US military and diplomatic messages. To extract the relevant news out of these – to make sense of them at all – it was imperative that Julian Assange linked up as he did with The Guardian, The New York Times and Der Spiegel for journalistic sifting and recognition of stories.
Without this sort of skill, there can be floods of open data pouring into newsrooms every day, but without the ability to extract it, and the ability to place it in context, it is not going to be much advantage to news organisations. However raw data, on spreadsheets, Excel presentations, other computerized lists, can be just so many haystacks in which journalists, if their contribution is to be at all timely, must find the needles. The term “data mining” is a good analogy, and today’s journalists must be learning to operate the equipment to mine effectively. The “news angle” is rarely going to be presented in a press release, when it is negative news fulfilling the traditional definition that “news is what someone, somewhere, doesn’t want you to know”.
As Cohen et al noted in 2011, computing technology could become the “saviour of journalism’s watchdog tradition” [p148].
And to quote Narrative Science, the company formed to machine-write stories at Medill:
“The promise of big data has yet to be fulfilled. There is a clear and immediate opportunity to bridge the gap between data and the people who need to understand it and act on it.”
There’s little doubt that loads of more freely-available data will be a boon to journalists, but it will also pose a huge challenge to traditional newsrooms.
The UK, with its open data site, is a world leader in this – or so Francis Maude, the former Cabinet secretary, claimed in Dublin at an open government meeting earlier this year.
Computer Assisted Reporting – CAR – is a term that’s been around for about 20 years. In the US, the National Institute for CAR offers itself as a contractor to do tricky data analysis jobs, even down to cleaning up documents which are uploaded in an unwieldy format, to transform them into the more usable .xls or .txt versions.
NICAR also works with the University of Missouri to provide a five-year programme consisting of a journalism undergrad and a masters in the computer assisted techniques.
“Computational journalism” is yet another term that has been applied in discourse on the new digital framework for news production, as discussed to good effect by Terry Flew et al in 2012. This concludes that the skills to handle and analyse data, with sophisticated modern tools, are a sine qua non for the aspiring journalist. Flew and co describe their topic thus:
“Computational journalism is not about getting journalists to think or act like computers, but enabling them to use computing devices to tackle problems beyond the scope of everyday action prior to the age of computing.”
They explain further: “Computational journalism demands not only a certain level of new ICT skills, capacities and literacies of journalists, but a new understanding of how journalists can work with, and in, the new economies of distributed and co-creative production.”
MOOCS, Massive Online Open Courses, are the hottish latest thing in further education. In May 2014, the European Journalism Centre in Maastricht started its own data journalism MOOC, with a claimed enrolment of 14,000. This indicates the breadth of interest from those both hoping to join the profession, and current members who feel the need to update their skills.
Educators have been turning out lots of fine young 20th century journalists, but this is the 21st century. Where are tomorrow’s journalists going to work? Tilburg gives some suggestions. According to business magazine Forbes, in a December 2013 article, the top five jobs for this year, 2014, are:
- Software developers;
- Market research analysts;
- Training and development specialists;
- Financial analysts;
- Physical therapists.
And looking ahead to numbers 6 and 7, they were also computer- linked, with web developer at 6 and logisticians at 7.
By sticking to those basics, a wide and fair approach to sources, and a strict adherence to spelling and presentation, we’re giving the journalists of 2050 a head start in keeping their society in their thrall.
But that is not enough: imagine trying to have black-balled typewriters, back at the start of the last century. The white heat of technology will burn us all if we don’t allow its light to shine on our practices. We don’t have to run headlong into the fire. We have to know how to control it. And that is our responsibility to the next generation.
Anderson, Chris, Bell, Emily, and Shirky, Clay, Post-Industrial Journalism, (report for Columbia Journalism School), 2012
Bardel, Jo, and Deuze, Mark, ‘Network Journalism’: Convergencing Competences of Old and New Media Professionals, Australian Journalism Review, 2001
Cohen, Sarah, Chengkai Li, Jun Yang, and Cong Yu, Computational Journalism: a Call to Arms to Database Researchers. Proceedings of 5th Biennial Conference on Innovative Systems Research, 148–151, 2011
Doherty, Skye, ‘Will the Geeks Inherit the Newsroom?’, Journal of Knowledge and Society, Vol.8, Australia, 2012
Flew, Spurgeon, Daniel and Swift, The Promise of Computational Journalism, Journalism Practice, April 2012
The Irish Times, Appointments section, June 13, 2014
Lassila-Marisalo, Maria, and Askali, Turo, How to Educate Innovation Journalists, Journalism and Mass Communication Educator, March 1, 2011
Pew Research Center, State of the Media 2014 http://www.journalism.org/2014/03/26/ the-growth-in-digital-reporting/
Randall, David, The Universal Journalist, Pluto Press, London, 1996-2007, page 1
Toffler, Alvin, Future Shock, Random House, New York, 1970
Valdez, Renalyn, The Integration of Mac Laboratory in the AB Mass Communication and AB Journalism Programs at the Lyceum of the Philippines University, International Journal of Knowledge, Technology and Society, 2012, Vol 8, issue 6
URLS: Broadcast Journalism Training Council http://www.bjtc.org.uk/#!repairs/cuy0 Accessed May 21 2014
University Centre Grimsby, multi-platform skills http://www.grimsby.ac.uk/highereducation/index.php Accessed May 21
2013 Brunel University BSc in communication and media studies http://www.brunel. ac.uk/courses/undergraduate/communication-and-media-studies-bsc Accessed May 21 2014
Emily Bell biog: http://www.journalism.columbia.edu/profile/304-emily-bell/10
Eliot van Buskirk, wired.com, 2014 http://www.wired.com/2010/04/will-columbiatrained-code-savvy-journalists-bridge-the-mediatech-divide/ Accessed June 9, 2014
The Complete University Guide, 2015 – Communication Studies http://www.thecompleteuniversityguide.co.uk/league-tables/rankings?s=Communication %26 Media Studies
The Guardian University Guide 2015 http://www.theguardian.com/education/ng-interactive/2014/jun/03/university-guide-2015-league-table-for-journalism-publishing-andpublic-relations
Definition of insanity…http://www.salon.com/2013/08/06/the_definition_of_insanity_is_the_most_overused_ cliche_of_all_time/