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.

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: