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.

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Cracking the Code: My Pledge to Learn How to Web Scrape

I’d like to make a public pledge: I intend to learn how to code.

There, I’ve committed myself.  I figure, I’d better, since in my mind, coding is somewhat equivalent to math, which means right away, I might avoid it.  But, see, I really get how much journalists need to be math and data savvy in this information era.  So, while I haven’t yet introduced coding to my students, in the future I will.  Plus, while this has an awful close resemblance to math, it’s also geeky, and it turns out I’m into geek.

Of course, I’m going to need a lot of help with this one.  Thankfully, help exists.  Here are some of the sites I’ve started exploring that seem to be designed to help a complete idiot beginner start coding or working with databases:

Here’s the thing:  This language is so foreign to me that I don’t even know what I don’t know.   For example, I only yesterday figured out that coding is related to web scraping.  Heck, I didn’t even know what web scraping was.  Nor did I know that Ruby or gems or Firebug  existed.  I had only vaguely heard of Python before (and still am not completely sure what it does). And don’t get me started on Nokogiri!

All of this is to say that I haven’t a clue as to what I’m doing.  I only know that coding is something journalists and their educators are going to need to be familiar with.

Have I gotten anything wrong here?  Have any suggestions on what else I need to learn that’s connected to this?  Or know of any tools or training sites that might aid a novice?

For a compilation of the resources I’ve collected on the topic, see my Storify piece.

Paint by Numbers: Data Visualization for Journalists

IRE just had its annual convention. I followed it a bit from afar. One thing has become very clear, not only from seeing the tweets on the conference, but in seeing tweets from many others that data-driven reporting and data visualization is absolutely a must-have skill for journalists today. And it should be, as never before has so much information been available to reporters and the public as it is today.

Someone–the journalist–needs to make sense of the data. And what better way to make sense of data than to make it visual. As an information consumer, I say yes, please. As journalists, well, we often virulently prefer words to math. While there’s no getting off the hook as a reporter for knowing basic math skills, thank goodness for tools that help you do the heavy lifting, like spreadsheets.

Still, it’s always with some trepidation that I begin the data visualization/data-driven reporting unit with my advanced j-students. They are often as math-phobic as I am. (And when they aren’t, I feel like Oz at the moment when the crew peeks behind the curtain to see him.)

Here’s our schedule:

    1. They get a handout on the kinds of things data-driven and computer-assisted reporting can accomplish, followed by an exercise in which the students used tools such as Monitter and Topsy to track or find key words in Twitter.
    2. They watched a video on turning numbers into stories.
    3. They examined three data-driven pieces–one in the form of an article, the other two in the form of data visualization.
    4. They began working with Excel through several in-class exercises, culminating in a story that necessitates analyzing data.

And, finally, they watch a series of videos called “Journalism in the Age of Data.” Great series and one that I hope gets the students excited about the possibilities of using data.

Be Excel-lent

Just as we were beginning our CAR and data-driven reporting unit for the semester–including an introduction to Excel–Poynter published  this:  Learning is a key for success in today’s newsrooms.

I was excited by the timeliness of the post, because it’s not such an easy task convincing writers that they need also to be numbers people.  This article could help me make my case.

And I needed it, because, see, I’m not all that good at math myself.  Or at least that’s what I’ve convinced myself of since I took my last math class back as an undergraduate.  (And that block to math has led me to all sorts of red-in-the-face moments in my classroom when I’m attempting to do simple math like put students into groups by counting off–counting off, for goodness sake!)

So, to persuade my journalism students that data is important and that Excel is a computer skill that can put them ahead of the pack, I need all the help I can get.   That doesn’t mean I’m an expert at Excel.  In fact, one of the things that I’ve realized in learning Excel myself is that, although Excel does the heavy lifting, I don’t always initially understand the math Excel is helping me compute in the first place.

That’s why I’m even more appreciative of those kind souls out there who are trying to throw us writerly mathophobes a lifeline: