Making the Case for Data Journalism in Our Community College Classrooms

Graph on data driven journalism including data, filter, visualize, storyAnyone who has read my blog at all knows that data journalism is something I’ve been thinking quite a bit about for the past 3 or 4 years. I am no expert; in fact, I often feel like a complete phony documenting my “growth” in this area, since there is so much more for me to know. But that’s all the self-flagellating I’m going to do. You know why? Because at least I’m trying.

I made the case to members of the Journalism Association of Community Colleges a few days ago at our summer faculty conference. True to form, the participants were supportive and agreeable. I expected that. After all, it is through this organization that I got a jump start learning about audio, video, and social media. The organization is full of passionate journalism teachers, teachers whose battle cry is definitely NOT “but it’s always been done this way!” These are professionals with our students’ best interest at heart, and that means they are willing to learn and tackle whatever is coming down the pike in our field.

So it was a pleasure to present. Again, I’m no expert, but I did my best to synthesize the information I’ve learned from taking a number of MOOCs on data journalism (the most recent of which was Data Journalism Fundamentals) and experimenting with data units in my classes. For those knowledgeable about data journalism, these will not rock your world, but like I told my audience today, it’s a start. Here’s what I talked about.

Why we need to do more to bring data journalism into our community college journalism courses: I cited a Knight Foundation-funded study from that came out recently about the state of data journalism in American universities. This study found that out of the 113 AEJMC accredited journalism programs, fully 54 had not a single data journalism course. In this era of big data and big data stories (think Panama Papers, for starters), that’s a problem. And we are in an era not just of big data, but also open data. That should mean that journalists are now irrelevant, right? job boards at nicarActually, even though audiences can now access data they could never have directly seen in the past, they lack the time and expertise to make this huge amount of information meaningful. That’s, points out Simon Rogers, where journalists come in. And, in fact, data journalism is the one of the few bright spots in the journalism job market.

The skills we need to teach our students: Everything I’ve learned so far suggests to me that there are five essential skills I want my students to leave with.

  • Skill #1: Data Acquisition–My students need to know how to a) use advanced search techniques, b) scrape a website (even if it’s mediated through easy-to-use tools), and c) file a FOIA request. I also want them aware of some of the big data repositories out there.
  • Skill #2: Backgrounding Data–We would never send our students out to interview the basketball coach at our college without minimal research, such as whether or not the team is having a winning season. It’s the same with data. Our students need to learn to ask questions not just of the data, but about the data. Who collected the data? How did they collect it? How often? Why did they collect it? Our students need the confidence to move beyond trusting the data just because the government or an expert collected it.
  • Skill #3: Cleaning Data–Data is collected by people, and people are imperfect Ergo, expect imperfect data. Our students need to know how to use sorting and filtering to clean data. If you are more ambitious about this whole thing, go ahead and teach them some OpenRefine. But our students should feel comfortable and even empowered by having some spreadsheet knowledge.
  • Skill #4: Interviewing Data–Again, the power of spreadsheets shall reveal all. Or at least, reveal things we could never see just by eye-balling the whole document. Let’s show our students how they can chain filter and slowly move in on the data and see things we could not see before. In our most introductory courses, let’s make sure students understand how to use basic spreadsheet calculations. Once they get that, let’s show them how to use pivot tables.
  • Skill #5: Visualizing Data–We need to introduce our students to data visualization concepts. The goal is to help them think about data visually and to make data visualizations that are accurate, meaningful, useful and maybe even beautiful. Sure, it may start with an Excel graph, but can easily move onto to a Google Fusion Table or a visualization made in Silk. We may not have the resources at our schools to create New York Times-style interactive extravaganzas, but that should not stop us from creating what we can.

Possibilities for our classes: In my workshop, I shared the three-week data journalism unit I use in my JOUR 121: Advanced Writing and Reporting class. Not ready for that? No problem. Just don’t let “overwhelm” stop you from doing something, anything. For example, how about using your basic news writing course to throw in a few advanced search skills? Or teach a few basic Excel calculations? In your production classes, make sure students now how to make simple, interactive Google maps. Start there. When you are comfortable, introduce other things.  Still not sure how to incorporate data into your program? The Knight Foundation-funded study I linked to above, Teaching Data and Computational Journalism, makes some great suggestions for our level, starting on page 53.

Resources: The good news is that there is so much help out there, from MOOCs to websites to inexpensive or free handbooks. Again, baby steps. I’ve posted some of my favorites on the website I created for the workshop.

Let me know how you plan to add data journalism into your program. Our California Community College journalism programs have worked hard to update curriculum and stay current. Let’s continue that now with data journalism skills.

 

You Better Hustle

hustleNow that I’m in the middle of a new semester of JOUR 121 and closing in on our data journalism unit, I’m recalling a day from last year when I mentioned to our newspaper staff that we were starting said-unit in said-class. Each person in the room who had taken JOUR 121 let out a discernible “ugh.” Apparently, the class was a form of torment for them, what with the audio, the video, and the data journalism.

In other words, they loved it.

Well, that’s a little strong. But the point is their audible “ughs” were also a little strong. When I questioned them about why they always acted as if JOUR 121 was boot camp, they replied that it was like boot camp.

Um, guys. Perhaps that’s not a bad thing. And here’s why: In today’s market, you betta hustle. No one is going to offer you a job for sitting at the computer writing about how you feel about the topic du jour, sans evidence, but avec the rant. Not happening.

Since I love you, dear students, I’m here to kick your encourage you to learn and experiment with every skill you can, while it only costs you $46 a unit (at a California Community College) and while you are living under your parents’ roof. We live in the Bay Area, and things are competitive. You’re gonna want to be employable. Very, very employable. (And good at what you do.)

A good place to start is by being tech-savvy. (Did I mention we live in the Bay Area?) Data journalism, in my opinion, offers one of the most abundant journalism job fields.For one, check out this photo posted on Twitter from the recent NICAR conference:

job boards at nicar

So, making careful decisions about how you choose to “position” yourself in this field is wise. But careful and deliberate decisions are not limited to what type of journalism you are hoping to go into, consider how many of these fairly basic things you done to position yourself for career success:

  • Start a blog. As my former student, Nico Triunfante, told my current class, having a blog serves as a live portfolio. He’s showcasing so many things on his blog, The Lunch Table, from video to writing to managing others (since he invites other writers to contribute). Nico Blog.JPGBlogs are required in my JOUR 121 class because blogging brings out a variety of skills. You are essentially managing your own publication. In addition to showcasing skills, though, good blog topics actually create opportunity because you are being entrepreneurial when you blog. Consider how many blogs lead to books or other kinds of opportunities. This is a great way to create your own job path.
  • Build your network. Yeah, you’re in college doing college-y things. Let building a network be one of them. Not the we-hooked-up-at-a-party kind, but the kind in which you connect with people on Twitter, reach out at conferences (ahem, go to conferences), beef up that LinkedIn page.
  • Get out front. Know what’s being experimented with next in journalism. This turbulent time in our industry means (some) people are trying lots of things. Being aware of what those experiments are–and playing around with them yourself–could make you an “expert” when few other people yet know what they are doing. Think Snapchat. Think virtual reality. Are you playing with these things? (And by the way, these things aren’t exactly new at this point. The point: Find out what is.) If you can’t take a class that focuses on journalistic experimentation, start on your own. And when you do, put your work out there and on your resume.  You aren’t being a dilettante. We need people who are willing to experiment. Be that person.
  • Continue your education. OK, you’re already a college student. This may seem like an odd thing to end up on this list. But really, it’s connected to each of the preceding bullets. When you take a free MOOC or build a PLN on Twitter, you are a) taking initiative, b) expanding the professionals you are in touch with, and c) keeping abreast of what’s developing in journalism. You might feel overwhelmed with all you’re doing now, but when you possibly can, consider these free options:

There’s more out there; to find it, you’re going to have to hustle for that too. Get used to that boot-camp feel, kids. Journalism is always going to require you to take initiative. Do yourself a favor, and start now.

New Semester, New Ideas, New Journalism

After a semester hiatus from teaching JOUR 121: Advanced Writing and Reporting, we are back. And that means this blog will be active again.

As with past semesters, I want my students to leave this semester with a strong skill set of knowing how to tell interesting stories in a variety of ways. They will learn how to capture and edit audio and video; they will see how numbers and other kinds of data can reveal stories; they will think visually and socially; and they will play with tools. We will look at formats they may not have considered yet (VR journalism anyone?) and look to see what other trends are starting to take hold. And we will bring the basic journalism skills and ethics to bear on all of this.

My hope is that these new ideas and new ways of storytelling will show my students just what an exciting time this is to be in journalism. Despite all the changes and cuts and chaos, if they remain passionate, continual learners who are willing to take initiative, there will be a place for them.

Incorporating Data Journalism: Finally a Victory

I’ve written about my mission to get data journalism and visualization into my JOUR 121 course before. Not being a math person myself (yeah, another journalist who has math phobia–blah, blah, blah), I’ve taken a variety of MOOCs and read a lot to try to get myself up to speed.

I’ve struggled for semesters to figure out the right assignment for my students. At first, I was appropriately underambitious, creating a short Excel spreadsheet of fake data for them to play with and write a fake story with. It wasn’t particularly intriguing or edifying. I was just out of the gates.

Next–and by next, I mean probably 5 semesters–came overly ambitious assignments that I composed under the heady inspiration of all that I was learning. The problem? I simply could not help them when they ran into the inevitable problems. That’s what I got for trying to have them scrape, background, clean and interrogate huge data sets and ready it all for a Google Fusion Table intensity map. When things didn’t work, I’d have to water down the assignment.

All good intentions, I assure you, and I am proud of myself for getting ahead of myself on this one–because it was necessary to start.

But I can finally cop to some success. This semester, I ditched the traditional story that I attached to each data assignment. Instead, I had them once again look at Clery Act data, but this time I limited the scope to disciplinary action violations for one year. And I took a page out of Steve Doig’s module in the MOOC, Data Driven Journalism, by providing my own video tutorials and walking them step by step through backgrounding to interrogation, using an older data set. The students interviewed our chief of public safety to help them background the data. I then “quizzed” the students in a way that gave them the opportunity to go through the same process with data from a different year. Finally, the students made Google Fusion Table maps with the schools that had the highest number of disciplinary action violations.  The students also came up with a variety of story ideas based on what the data revealed. They were successful with all of this.

I will take the victory.

Would I ultimately like them to write the stories connected to the data? Yes, of course. But with these beginners, this is enough. For now. And because I have also finally started bringing this necessary training into our other classes, particularly the publication class, the students are beginning to think about real data stories and how to visualize them.

Social Media and Verification Tools

It should be obvious from this blog that I’ve been learning right alongside my students. I’ve had fun chronicling my failures and successes with teaching digital journalism. One thing I’m feeling like I can put into the (moderate) success column: I just added a section on verification.

verficiatonLet me back up a moment. For the past several years, my students have built social media stories in Storify. They’ve also used or identified how to use social media to find sources and stories. But one thing I had not yet deliberately built into the process was verification. Sure, we’ve talked about the basics of making sure sources are credible–after all, these are my more advanced students–but we haven’t talked about specific methodologies for making sure particular tweets, photos or videos are authentic. Even just typing that sentence, it feels so obvious that that needs to be explicitly taught, but, well, perhaps I’m late to the party.

The realization that I needed to do this came after I had already completed this semester’s schedule. Nonetheless, I found a way to designate two class sessions to this. Was that enough? Probably not. But at least they have an introduction to the subject.

On the first day, I had them identify what prior knowledge they brought to the topic. They easily identified the strengths (we’ve covered this before) and the weaknesses of using social media. I was pleased that they innately knew the risks of relying on social media information. But what especially made me happy was that they were able to brainstorm several solid ways to verify information on social media.

I followed this up with readings from the following:

Once the students had done the reading, I uploaded different social media posts to an online class forum and had the students analyze the posts and figure out how they would go about verifying each.

So, again, I put this in the “success” column. Perhaps this will work itself into a larger unit at some point, but for now, I’m happy to have initiated some training on this. How are you teaching or doing verification of social media postings?

Update on April 30, 2015: This article by Anthony De Rosa is also a worthwhile read: How to Be a Good Internet Citizen During Breaking News.

Immersive Journalism: Now You See It; Now You’re In It

NPR interviewed documentary filmmaker and journalist Nonny De la Pena yesterday about Project Syria, which participants were able to experience at the Sundance Film Festival. Yes, experience, not view.

That’s because De La Pena’s piece is not a movie, but what she calls “immersive journalism,” created using virtual reality technology to place the viewer in the scene. In this case, one of those is a street corner in Syria’s Aleppo district right as a bomb blows up. De la Pena aims to put the viewer in the middle of the action, using real footage, audio and images taken on site. Wish you were here?

The project heralds a new way to tell journalistic stories. Journalists are already experimenting with how to use Google Glass and Oculus Rift for storytelling. But if de la Pena’s company, Emblematic Group, becomes the “CNN of VR” as Engagdet predicts, that would be a game-changer.

Think about it: Younger audiences are already accustomed to more engagement than previous audiences, ditching traditional news stories for real-time social media. What if journalists could put them, say, right on the streets of Ferguson or in an Ebola hospital in Sierra Leone? Not viewing the action, but engaging with the action.

Of course, journalists must think through the pitfalls of this kind of storytelling. As de la Pena told NPR, journalists must reflect on best practices for these new “spatial narratives.” For example, while photo manipulation is considered unethical in photojournalism, de la Pena told All Things Considered host Robert Siegel that with this new platform comes “different affordances.” That is, just as documentary film makers have ethically acceptable ways of recreating scenes for which there is no actual footage, virtual reality storytellers might also ethically recreate narratives that help audiences understand a story or situation.

This virtual journalism will have to be navigated carefully–for one, will audiences suffer post-traumatic stress from interacting with actual scenes of violence and carnage? But it’s exciting to consider the applications.

I watched the Reynolds Journalism Institute Green Shoots in Education program live stream the other day from the comfort of my home. I barely needed my second cup of coffee, because the innovations that the speakers were discussing so excited me that I felt ready to tackle a whole new curriculum before getting out of bed.

And then I had to leave for a writer’s discussion group in my daughter’s 5th grade class. Pumpkin muffins in hand, I headed down to her school, while still wired through my headset to Green Shoots. Yes, I unplugged when I got there.

So, now it’s the next week, and I’m going back through the archived videos of the event. It’s giving me much to reflect on. I’m proud that I’ve already brought some of the things discussed into my program: I’ve taken seriously (if not totally successfully yet) the need to bring data journalism into my courses, I’ve had my students participate in Carrie Brown-Smith’s Twitter scavenger hunt, and I’ve introduced my students to tools like Timeline JS and SoundCite JS.

But this line up? Wow. I’m struck by how much more I want to be doing.  During the program, someone asked on Twitter what the barriers or challenges were to change at our schools. For me, it’s being a department of one. The nice thing is that I can be fairly nimble in my curriculum, since I do not have to get the rest of a department on board with me. But I often want to do more than I can tackle as one person–or at least one person who still runs carpool in between planning curriculum and grading papers.

Perhaps the most inspiring part of the discussion was to see what you can do within your curriculum now.

That alone made me decide to change up the students’ next assignment. Instead of merely doing a photo piece, I may have them use Timeline JS to display the photos they take at an event over the course of several hours. Or I could use the StoryMap JS tool to have them create a Gigapixel visual to start with a broader photo (say, an scene-setting or establishing shot) and then move in with greater detail, perhaps getting a variety of different kinds of shots, such as close-up, above, etc. The point is to get them comfortable with telling stories in new ways.

And new ways–new ways of story telling, new ways of reaching audiences, new ways of teaching–seems to me to be the point of Green Shoots. Inspiring indeed!

Why Taking This Class Will Help You

Skyline College started its fall semester yesterday.  And since I have several students in the JOUR 121 course, I will once again be updating this blog more regularly.  I love teaching this course, in part because of the professional developments challenges it offers to me. But I also feel an obligation to teach this course as the journalism landscape continues to implode change. Perhaps I’m in this mood because I just read Clay Shirky’s smackdown-of-an-article, “Last Call: The end of the printed newspaper.” Yikes.

So, if he’s right–and it’s prudent to think so–here are the three things he says you better get on now:

  1. “Get good with numbers.”
  2. “Learn to use social media tools to find stories and sources.”
  3. “Journalism is becoming more of a team sport…volunteer for (or propose) anything that involves deeper teamwork than you’re used to, and anything that involves experimenting with new tools or techniques.”

If you are enrolled in JOUR 121, you are taking a good first step towards these three things, because those three goals are already built into our class and its assignments.  The real challenge is to not stop at what you learn this semester, but to take his advice as path to follow. Sure, take this class. But if you also see a free MOOC on data journalism, enroll.  If you aren’t on social media, or are not on top of posting, do it.  If you envision interning at a print publication, but aren’t also imagining a news or journalism product you can produce yourself, start now. Make sure journalistic Darwinism finds YOU a survivor.

Tracking Twitter Chats the Easy Way

As I said in the last post, feedback from some of my students about joining in with the #Edshift Twitter chat indicated that they were overwhelmed by the fast-paced, multi-directional responses. I can understand that.  While it fires me up, it was too unfocused for some of them.  Well, here’s a quick remedy if you want to engage in chats (and you should). Try the following free tools for seeing a more organized chat:

  • Nurph: While this tool is free, you will  need to sign up and create a “channel” for the chat. What I like about this is that, depending on who’s running the chat,
    Nurph allows replays of your old chats, as well as helping to organize a current chat.

    Nurph allows you to view replays of old chats, along with organizing your current chat.

    you can set it up to keep the current chat question at the top, instead of the question getting buried in the barrage of tweets. The site also allows you to see replays of archived chats.  And I haven’t even tapped into all of Nurph’s functionality.

  • Tweetchat: Simple.  Just type in the Twitter chat hashtag and you’ll see all the tweets from that chat.  It’s sort of like doing a search for your hashtag directly through Twitter, only it’s better because when you tweet through this site, it automatically adds the hashtag.  It also auto updates, but not when you scrolling down on the page.
  • Hootsuite: This overall social media organization tool can also help you manage your chats.
  • TweetDeck will allow you to do the same thing.
  • Twubs: Another tool for following a particular hashtag.

And once you’re done chatting (or lurking!), it’s possible the people moderating the chat have Storified the whole affair.  While you won’t be able to participate in these post chat round-ups, you can still soak up all that chat goodness.

 

Using Twitter Chats to Build Your Network

Although I am not teaching Journalism 121: Advanced Writing and Reporting this semester, which means I am not teaching the class that has spurred many of my blog posts, I’m still incorporating the same types of strategies, tools and journalism fundamentals into my other classes. Because not to would be foolhardy.

One such tool skill fundamental I’ve been hitting hard in our basic writing and reporting class is social media, specifically Twitter. To increase my own skills, I just completed the Knight Center for Journalism in the America’s MOOC on social media. (And by the way, I am not at all a naysayer of MOOCs, at least the ones the Knight Center does.) What I’ve found is that although my students use social media anyway, most of them are on Instagram or Facebook, instead of Twitter, and few of them understand how to use Twitter to report, build a network or communicate with an intended audience.

To get these beginning students up to speed, I’ve required a Twitter component to the class which involves tweeting a minimum number of tweets about things newsworthy to our campus.  So far, so good.  Well, sort of.  Many of them frequently forget–they just aren’t in the habit of using Twitter.  (The ones who use Twitter for personal reasons tend to be better at this part.) To remedy that (mildly), I have taken to conducting Drop Everything and Tweet sessions.  Despite this, they still don’t see the full reach and power in their tweets. I’m also having them participate in the #JRLWeb scavenger hunt. This will connect them to other schools (mostly universities, another element I want to expose my community college students to).

However, what I really want is for them to build their personal (and professional) learning networks and understand how Twitter has the power to connect them to people to whom they would not normally have access. As I thought about how to do this, I thought about my own experiences with Twitter. And what I came to is that engaging in a Twitter chat is one effective way to connect with and expand your community.  So, I had them participate in @PBSMediaShift‘s #edshift chat last week.  Although the chaotic nature of the Twitter chat was disorienting for many of them, I think it also gave them a sense of Twitter’s equalizing quality: Media professionals and educators wanted to know what they thought.  In the end, several of my students’ comments made it into the Storify.

That’s the beauty of Twitter chats: Everyone’s welcome.  I’ve felt that on the other chats I’ve participated in, even not being a “regular.” Want to get your students (or yourself) into the discussion? You can.  Twitter chats exists every day on a variety of topics, giving us all a chance to build our professional and personal networks, while truly being “heard” in the process.  It’s a win-win for all involved.  And if you can’t find one that’s a good fit, moderate your own.

A Sampling of Twitter Chats for Journalists and Journalism Educators:

Web Journalist #wjchat: Wednesdays at 5 p.m. PT

PBS Ed Shift #edshift:  1st and 3rd Fridays of the month at 1 p.m. ET

Digital First Media #dfmchat: Wednesdays at noon ET

#JournChat: Mondays at 8 p.m. ET

Can’t keep all these chats in your head? Try following a Twitter account like @ChatSalad for chat reminders. And if you really want to get in deep (read: spend all your time on Twitter chats instead of doing things like, say, feeding your cat, cooking dinner or putting your children to bed), try this 2012 list of chats for journalists. Just check to make sure the hashtags, times, etc. still exist.