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J-School Students Develop New Skills in Data Visualization


Faria Akram reviews her work for Introduction to Coding for Journalists.

The only thing constant about journalism is change.

Change in technology, change in resources and change in skill sets. The School of Journalism at UT Austin is building platforms to get in front of new technology as it affects journalism, by giving students the opportunity to learn how to code, and tell compelling stories with maps.

The J-School added two new classes this semester — Mapping in Storytelling taught by Kirk Goldsberry and Introduction to Coding for Journalists taught by Andrew Chavez.

R.B. Brenner, director of the School of Journalism, began the initiative to enhance the overall skill set and mind set of students “in the age of the numerate journalist” - a journalist who can magnify traditional storytelling by learning a unique skill set of data visualization.

Building upon basic grassroots reporting skills, the new focus has switched to how this can make the journalism better.

“These other skills [coding and data driven reporting] give you more superpowers to tell those stories,” Brenner said. 

Mapping in Storytelling is unique partly because of the content and partly because journalism and geography majors have teamed up to tackle the intensive course work of spatial analysis.

Geography majors learn to develop their writing skills, while journalism majors develop their skill set in map making. At the end of the semester, students should have a conceptual and practical understanding of how and when to devise a map for journalistic purposes.

“I saw an opportunity to help the journalism department and help myself blend storytelling with the more analytical and more empirical evidence based investigations,” Goldsberry said. He received a PhD in Geography from the University of California, Santa Barbara and has taught taught mapping and visualization courses at Michigan State and Harvard.

He believes journalism schools need to make sure students are being exposed to and trained in the storytelling technologies of the day.

 “One of the most potent ones right now is data visualization and map making. Exploring data through spatial and visual means,” Goldsberry said.

Spatial analysis is “an extension of quantitative analysis with a key focus on space.” It is the gathering of data based on how ideas and things change over space. Looking at spatial patterns to find anomalies shows how things are one way over here and different over there.

“It’s a huge way to look at the world,” Goldsberry said.

The course was designed for students who haven’t touched mapping software and aren’t familiar with methods of map making.

Students familiarize themselves with ArcGIS, Geographic Information Systems, key software in map making and Adobe Illustrator, the graphic software used to enhance the presentation of the maps.

Journalism student Adam Humphrey said the class has given him a different perspective on reporting.

“It has helped me think about news that I cover from a different angle. It's easier to understand some concepts by looking at a map rather than reading about it,” Humphrey said.

Students find information in large data sets, learn to extrapolate the important and compelling data and use the data to write a captivating story.

“Writing is nothing new. Map making is nothing new. But integrating them in contemporary media, so commonly, is becoming more and more popular and it is kind of new,” Goldsberry said.

Storytelling and journalism are becoming data driven and a lot more analytical. More and more journalists are teaming with newsroom coders to augment their reporting.

Introduction to Coding for Journalists is an entry-level class that teaches basic principles of web development.

It is about the code that can run in your web browser and is used to make simple web pages or very simple interactives.

Students learn HTML, CSS, and Javascript. The ability to control the presentation of web pages is a key tool in newsrooms, which allows journalists to effectively communicate with their technical team.

Instructor Andrew Chavez, journalist and web developer at the Austin American-Statesman, said journalists have an edge when they can effectively communicate with their technical partner in a newsroom.

“Most journalists are good in their field and work with a person who codes. There’s a disadvantage, and a class like this helps when you are in that position trying to work with someone who’s a coder, it seems like magic if you don’t understand the basic mechanics of it.” Chavez said. “A student taking this class can work in a newsroom with a coder more effectively because they know the basics of it.”

The goal of the coding class is not for journalism students to become deep experts in programming, but to gain a basic knowledge of developer tools to understand a website and see the line of code that controls the underpinnings of the platform.

Learning a new language can be intimidating and foster frustration, said journalism student Alexis Magro-Malo.

“You can be off by one error and the entire outcome won’t work. In short, it’s challenging, but I enjoy the challenge,” Magro-Malo said.

Both courses teach skills that can be sharpened and perfected outside of the classroom. Brenner’s goal is to take current course work at the school and scale it so that more students are exposed to these cutting edge skills. 

- Anahita Pardiwalla