You’re a Journalist. Why are you in iSchool?

Good question. I’m in information school (iSchool) because knowing how to interview people and write stories is not enough to succeed as a journalist today.

In earlier eras, mainstream media were the source of facts (re: information). Between the World Wide Web and mobile technology, facts now lie at our fingertips. We don’t need to wait for the morning paper or the nightly news to keep us updated. Facts have become commoditized, but journalists never traded solely in facts. A journalist’s unit of currency is the story, a set of facts that, when taken together, help people make sense out of the world.

Which brings me to data.

Data is everywhere. On its own, one cell from a spreadsheet is useless. But thousands, millions, billions, even trillions of data points taken together produce meaning. Data plus a human to analyze and contextualize it coalesces into knowledge, insight, and conclusions. How can we humans develop these skills? Enter iSchool. Take this list of the 10 things journalists should know coming into 2013. iSchool students build skills, interact with data, manage information, build online communities, design user experiences, build mobile applications, and learn very quickly that change is the norm. That’s more than half the list!

Data, as Ken Doctor writes, enables journalists to go deeper:

“Well-programmed technology can do a lot of journalistic heavy lifting. In part, all the technological innovation simply lets smart journalists ask better questions and get a faster result. It both allows journalists to get questions they know they’d like to answer — and goes a step beyond. Getting at unstructured data opens inquiry to lots of content previously beyond reach. Machine learning, says [Chase] Davis [director of the Center for Investigative Reporting], ‘allows datasets to tell you their stories. You don’t have to be limited by your own experience.’ ”

It also makes business sense to hire a data journalist, as Amy Gahran points out:

Journalists, editors and publishers who make an effort to become data literate may be able to demonstrate a competitive advantage to the communities they serve — and, indirectly, to funders, sponsors or advertisers.

As a student at UMSI, I am creating my own path of study called data storytelling. This includes computer programming and data analysis (to learn how to glean insight from data), graphic and interaction design (to present that insight in a compelling manner), and information policy (to put that insight into context). I also help organize the A2 Data Dive, a service event in which community members and students spend a weekend crunching data for nonprofit organizations.

Join me on this adventure to learn how to interview data and tell its stories. Do you have a thought, idea, or (constructive) criticism to offer? Leave a comment below, send me a tweet, or email me at priyaku [at] umich [dot] edu. Welcome!

(And yes, I treat “data” as singular. As linguist Geoff Nunberg writes:

“Whatever the sticklers say, data isn’t a plural noun like ‘pebbles.’ It’s a mass noun like ‘dust.’)

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