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Thursday, September 5, 2013
Education Toolbox

Steering data journalism into the curriculum

By Mac McKerral

Just when curriculums started getting their arms around multimedia storytelling — a slow and sometimes painful journey — a new bully showed up in the schoolyard: data.

Not that the idea of telling compelling stories using data is new. It’s not.

But the tools available to do it the right way abound now, reams of data exist at our fingertips, and the Web provides a showcase for it.

But the experts warn — and I am not an expert, just a big fan learning on the fly — that telling the story must always remain the goal.

I got the bug when I watched a video on the TED website titled “Hans Rosling: Stats that reshape your worldview.” (See: tinyurl.com/HansRoslingTedTalk.)

But when it comes to introducing students to data journalism, questions abound:

• Where does it fit in the curriculum?

• What skills do students need before taking a data journalism course?

• How much do our students really understand about the validity of data? (Or, as the adage goes, "Figures lie and liars figure.")

• If we shoehorn in classes in data, what courses come out? (Please, not at the expense of writing.)

• And the million-dollar question: Who will teach it?

Preaching the value of data always has been part of my news writing classes, even at the basic level. It can help do all the things good written news stories do — identify trends, provide context, identify anomalies, illuminate disparities and validate information coming from other sources. The list goes on.

But I always remind students that the data cannot overwhelm the story. It helps complement the story — like the seasoning helps complement great spaghetti sauce.

The same holds true for data storytelling.

At Western Kentucky University, our “data guy” is Josh Meltzer, who came to us from the Roanoke Times and who recently completed his master’s work at Miami University. His mentor at Miami, Albert Cairo, did a bang-up session titled “The Functional Art: Design and Infographics” at the March Journalism Interactive gathering in Gainesville, Fla. (See tinyurl.com/TheFunctionalArtPresentation.) He prefaced his session with a strong dose of ethics and accuracy.

Josh is guiding the School of Journalism & Broadcasting at WKU into the data waters with a one-time offering in fall 2013 called “Visualizing Data.” The class comes with no pre-requisites; non-majors can take the class, too.

In his course proposal, Josh wrote:

“For journalists, being able to comprehend and find non-fiction narratives buried within data sets is no longer a specialty of a few members of a newsroom, but is becoming a base requirement for the profession. For students in other fields, learning to display statistical data that explains trends, informs decision makers or helps larger populations understand complex topics is imperative today.”

During the past year, I have pigeonholed some articles from a variety of sources that look at data journalism through a lot of different lenses.

Perhaps they can get the data train rolling for you.

Mac McKerral is an associate professor and news editorial coordinator in the School of Journalism & Broadcasting at Western Kentucky University and a past national president of SPJ.

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