Data Journalism – a modern day Bletchley Park?

Photo by DaveonFlickr CC licence (CC BY-SA 2.0

Photo by DaveonFlickr CC licence (CC BY-SA 2.0)

I can’t help it. Whenever I hear people talking about their data-driven journalism work, I start imagining starkly-decorated rooms with complex machines crunching endless numbers; teams of frighteningly intelligent young people looking for meaningful patterns in apparent chaos. They work round-the-clock, driven by a mission to save the free world from oppression, fuelled by cups of tea.

(I’m going to ignore Jonathan Hewett who shattered this image last night and insisted that day-to-day life in his Interactive Journalism department at City University is actually far too mundane to be compared to WW2 code breakers. I’m sure they had timetabling issues in Bletchley Park too.)

Last night I found myself in a room intimidatingly full of Data Journalists. It was a Media Society event to launch the new book, Data Journalism:Mapping the Future to which I contributed a chapter. It was a fascinating evening which Adam Tinworth has captured very well in his excellent blog.Data Journalism:Mapping the Future

The evening was almost ruined when Raymond Snoddy unexpectedly asked me to say something from the floor. I burbled something along the lines of “where do Data Journalists come from and how did you get to be that way?” I imagine the recruitment process is probably similar to Bletchley Park. An ability to complete the Daily Telegraph crossword in under twelve minutes, for example. Certainly, the route into Data Journalism is not an obvious one and a period of studying journalism at a UK University certainly doesn’t seem to be part of that route.

This makes me sad.

But would adding a compulsory statistics module onto journalism courses, for example, help? I’m sure many students attracted to journalism because they like WRITING would run a mile. So perhaps we need to stop marketing journalism as purely a subject for the arts students (who often take a worrying pride in their ignorance of maths.) Perhaps we should make it obvious – to a world which really doesn’t know this yet – that journalism is also a subject for numerate students…..who can also write. (Because nobody boasts about being rubbish at writing, do they?)

In the States, some journalism students graduating with data journalism and/or programming skills have taken to calling themselves “unicorns” because their set of skills makes them so rare. This doesn’t help. It implies their skills are exceptional, difficult, elite.

Worse, it lets the rest of us off the hook.

Sure, some aspects of data journalism do require an exceptional level of specialist knowledge and skill. But other aspects are definitely attainable so long as we decide to make the effort.

And that’s where journalism educators come in. We have to show that we believe these basic numeracy, stats, spreadsheet, web scraping skills are perfectly attainable rather than always treating them as peripheral, geeky.

There is no such thing as a unicorn; only hard work.

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