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.

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.

Google Maps: One Way to Tell Your Data Story

This week, my students will be taking a look at how journalists have used maps to tell data stories.  They will be watching a quick video I did (without audio unfortunately), as well as checking out a variety of Google maps others have created. One sad, powerful example they’ll look at specifically is the map the Democrat and Chronicle in Rochester, New York did on the homicides in 2005. (They just updated a map last week on more current homicides, too.)

The discussion I hope to prompt is one that centers on telling data stories in other ways aside from text.  Though they will examine data later in the semester to, in fact, tell a data-driven story, I want them to see how accessible and comprehensible data becomes when is expressed in a visual form. Sometimes, that visual form is a map.

So, they’ll begin small.  First, they are going to do a simple map that tells their biography–things like where they went to high school, their favorite  neighbor spot to eat, the park where they walk their dog.  Then, they’ll create a map that fits into their blog theme, something that they believe will hold value to their readers.

The maps won’t necessarily be sophisticated as, say, this one on toxic hotspots.  But, doing these two maps will start my students on a journey that will lead to a lot of other data visualization.  And I’m sure to be learning more skills right alongside them.