Teaching Examples

Do numbers make your head hurt?
January 15, 2007, 2:29 pm
Filed under: data, investigative, journalism, online

Several people have written recently about the need to convey data — statistical information — online and in journalism generally. They are correct! Especially with the ability to search and to convey the data with dynamic graphics — online provides the perfect showcase for deep, meaningful data.

Derek Willis (the research database editor at The Washington Post) wrote an explanatory essay on the topic Saturday:

The Web is the canvas for CAR, better than any other platform we’ve come up with as an industry. It has every advantage that should be available to the CAR practitioners, including unlimited depth, the ability to customize or personalize and the luxury of designing a database so that it will truly be useful to readers. Some papers get this, or are beginning to realize it. Think of USA Today, where that paper’s sports salaries databases not only produce stories for the paper but also help cement its reputation as a premier destination for national sports information. When bloggers and other publishers start using your site as the “standard” for that topic or piece of information, that increases your influence and reach. Go ahead: search Google for “baseball salaries”. What’s the first result?

(“CAR” is old-school jargon for “computer-assisted reporting,” a phrase that I see going out of fashion as most people come to recognize that the computer is nothing more than standard equipment for every reporter.)

Willis also pointed out that you can get a lot of bang for the buck when you put a big database online where everyone can search it:

While there’s much to be said for the ability to distill loads of information and data into a digestible story, why would we leave it at just that when we could keep readers coming back to our sites or staying there for longer periods of time? … I can think of few other areas in which Web sites get more for less than with those people who know how to use databases. A great deal of Web data runs on open-source applications that cost less and, when properly automated, require less time and effort to maintain than a collection of text that needs to be copy-and-pasted into a CMS.

Amen, brother! Now, if only we could get the fabulous information graphics reporters in the same room with the database geniuses — and give them a direct line to the Web site! Yes, Lord! Mine eyes have seen the glory, amen! (Some examples here and here.)

Ryan Sholin advises:

… start looking for ways to integrate database work and analytical journalism. Your readers will thank you.

Matt Waite, a reporter for the St. Petersburg (Fla.) Times, noted that you will be a hotly recruited job candidate if you can dance with data:

Being able to present data along with your blogging, your Flash graphics, your videos, will have employers bidding for your services. Don’t believe me? I know of two such young fellows who were handed their degrees and 10 minutes later were working for two of the 10 largest newspapers in the country.

I know one person like that — a smart guy who went directly from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill master’s degree program to The New York Times online operation. Do not pass Go, do not collect $200 — go straight to Boardwalk and Park Place. He’s no mere “Flash jockey.” He understands data.

Another one came out of our own undergrad and master’s programs a couple of years ago. His first job out? ESPN.com — and he’s still there, naturally. It’s his dream job. (We have not turned out any more like him recently; most journalism students chafe and squirm when we introduce them to Excel. I’m not giving up hope, though!)

Bob Stepno referred to what IRE calls “interrogating your data”:

Get reporters to use computers as computers — for data collection, number-crunching and analysis, not just as on-screen typewriters. Maybe Mindy didn’t mention it because it goes without saying that today’s journalists need to know about databases of public records and how to extract untold stories from them.

Here’s a question for the j-schools: Do you teach your students explicitly (hands-on) how to use Excel (or another spreadsheet program)? Do you teach them how to sort, clean and analyze large datasets?

If not, then that’s a shortcoming in your journalism program.

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6 Comments so far
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Wow. Good timing. I just posted about The Scoop.

Comment by Megan Taylor

For the record, my physicist wife taught me to use Excel re: our household budget.

I’m not sure it was ever mentioned in any of the undergrad j-school classes I’ve taken in the last two years, although it did come up in my grad-level Research Methods class, thank goodness.

Comment by Ryan

For those of us seeking training in CAR etc, post-grad, where do we go? Is this worth going back to journalism school for, or should we be looking at compsci departments? – Hanna

Comment by Anonymous

Hanna (and others):

Most CAR people in newsrooms are self taught. I am. The vast majority of analytic journalism (a better phrase, I believe) isn’t that complicated. It’s using databases to group and count and sort. It’s using spreadsheets to calculate things like percent change. As for training, IRE and NICAR do hands-on training at their conferences and at boot camps at the University of Missouri. If you join IRE, you get access to thousands of pages of tipsheets and some self directed training materials. IRE’s website is http://www.ire.org. It’s worth the money to join. NICAR also has a listserv of people who are willing to help people learning CAR get over some of the bumps in the road. But please, jump right in. The world needs more reporters who get numbers.

Comment by Matt Waite

There are very few master’s programs in which you would get more than one CAR course — if any. Matt is completely right about IRE and NICAR. Even one workshop with them is worth a great deal.

Comment by Mindy McAdams

Great resources and tips — thank you both. – Hanna

Comment by Anonymous

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