Coding != Scary

What attracts people to journalism? A love of language? An insatiable curiosity about how the world works? These characteristics drive journalists to pursue stories and captivate an audience using the power of narrative. They also make journalists great candidates to learn coding.

Yes, computer programming, that gibberish-like collection of symbols and phrases that make our computers whir and our Internet function. That coding.

Programming languages resemble human languages in that they operate under a set of rules, or syntax, and they enable us to communicate with another group (in this case machines rather than people). Programming languages focus more on logic than math, and learning to code offers a reminder that there is more than one way to think about things. Learning any new language takes time and practice, but payoffs exist. The sheer glee of writing a few lines of code that actually function mirrors the deep satisfaction of writing a beautiful sentence. I experienced this when I used the len function in Python to write a program that states whether a given text is too long for a Tweet. Yes, this already exists, but it was my code, and it worked.

A more significant payoff to learn even basic coding is the ability to suss out stories from:

“stacks of financial disclosure forms, court records, legislative hearings, officials’ calendars or meeting notes, and regulators’ email messages. …With a suite of reporting tools, a journalist will be able to scan, transcribe, analyze, and visualize the patterns in these documents. Adaptation of algorithms and technology, rolled into free and open source tools, will level the playing field between powerful interests and the public by helping uncover leads and evidence that can trigger investigations by reporters.”

Call it computational journalism, precision journalism, or data journalism, but digging through unstructured data is how the media will undertake its watchdog responsibility. This doesn’t mean journalists need degrees in computer science (though it wouldn’t hurt), but it does mean that journalists should understand the capabilities of software and learn one or two tools they can apply in their daily reporting. John Diedrich did so with databases and won an award.

Journalism education must also incorporate more coding. Not just because doing so can land students jobs, but because, as Mindy McAdams writes:

“To hang in there — to produce data-driven journalism, or design a mobile app, or write a long-form profile story — students need to have both good taste and a desire to master something. … At the root of all this talk about programming, apps, and so on, is the idea of story. But have our students seen the story in the data, in the graphic, in the app?”

Coding and data analysis form one leg of my concentration in Data Storytelling. I don’t intend to become a programmer, but I do want to speak the same language as a coder and understand how to tell a computer to dig in the way I want it to.

What has learning to code helped you accomplish? Share your story in the comments.

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.’)