Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Being a More Versatile Journalist: Data Journalism Veteran Steve Doig Wants Journalists to Know Statistics

Aerial photograph of the devastation from hurricane Andrew in 1992. Steve Doig, who was a reporter for the Miami Herald at the time, used his data journalism chops to survey the damage and write a Pulitzer-prize winning expose on construction malpractice. Earlier this year, I asked him what aspiring data journalists should be learning.

I cringe when bloggers begin a post by apologizing to readers for a lack of updates. This is partly because most people do, or should, understand that the gig doesn’t pay. But mostly, every word you waste on explaining your absence is one more chance for a reader to lose interest and go somewhere else. So I’ll just say it’s been an eventful couple of months, and tell you why it’s actually relevant to this blog.

Having just finished a master’s in journalism at the University of Illinois, I was extremely lucky to find a National Science Foundation grant that is training better K-12 science teachers.

At the grant, we do this by teaching lessons in entrepreneurial leadership to science teachers. That translates into experiences like students constructing their own spectrophotometers, or high school students manufacturing their own biofuel, or even collaborations where high school students set up demonstrations on electricity for grade school students to work through.

It’s a radical, but practical approach that hopes to improve the nation’s competitiveness in science teaching. In January, results from the National Assessment of Educational Progress report card on teaching showed that 47 percent of all high school seniors in the country are deficient in the sciences.

Why would an NSF grant want a journalist? For one, I understood their language. Being a former undergraduate student of mechanical engineering, I had taken chemistry, physics, calculus, and statistics courses. Secondly, they wanted someone experienced in the ways of conducting interviews (i.e., collecting data) and translating the information into an easily digestible form (i.e., not only help write reports for the NSF but also write for public dissemination).

That was all they were looking for initially, until I mentioned I had worked with NodeXL, a template that turns Microsoft Excel into a tool for analyzing social networks. I was introduced to the program by Brant Houston, in his investigative reporting class at the university. The Excel plug-in comes in handy during an investigation when you need to do things like plot like the flow of money or political influence within organizations or among groups of people. As it turns out, the grant was conducting a first-of-its kind analysis of teaching networks and needed someone with my expertise.

The moral of this story could be that if you develop skills beyond traditional journalism in undergraduate/graduate school, it’s easier to parlay your skills into a new career when the journalism jobs market tanks. But the fact is I’m still practicing journalism, albeit during my off-hours.

I recently submitted an investigation of a local church with more than $100,000 in tax liens to, a Knight foundation-funded community news website. The investigation required digging up and looking through nonprofit tax records, federal tax liens, city ordinances, and even credit union call reports. The investigation stemmed from a legal notice I stumbled upon in the aforementioned investigative journalism class.

Rather, this is why a journalist should learn data journalism: to become a more versatile investigator.

When I was teaching introductory journalism classes to freshmen and sophomore university students, I wanted them to know exactly why it’s useful to have computer and data journalism skills. So I put together a presentation on data journalism for a lecture of about 100 students, and asked data journalism veteran Steve Doig, who is currently the Knight Chair at the Walter Cronkite school of journalism, for a few bits of advice.