UT Journalism takes on NICAR 2020

Six students share their experiences from the data journalism conference

By Christian McDonald

Each March, about 1,000 data and technical journalists gather together to teach each other skills and share their experiences reporting out the most important stories of the year. I attended my first NICAR as a professional journalist in 2014 and it was such a profound, transformative experience for me I’ve attended and contributed to the program each subsequent year. This year, thanks to the generosity of the Moody College Family Network, six students from the School of Journalism were able to attend the 2020 conference in New Orleans. These are their stories.

Abby Hopkins

I am immensely grateful for the opportunity to attend NICAR 2020. During my time at UT, I grew a fondness for data and coding through data journalism courses and led me to expand my skills in a computer science course and an independent study with Professor McDonald to build a product for the Journalism School this semester. However, there were still many programs and concepts I would be unable to learn at UT that NICAR allowed me the opportunity to dip my toes into. While I am learning Python in my computer science course, an all-afternoon session on Python at NICAR allowed me to bridge the gap between what I’ve been learning in the course and how it relates to journalism. Now I have a greater understanding of how I could potentially use Python in a journalistic context. I also attended another all-afternoon session on R, which is a completely new tool for me. Gaining a basic understanding of these programs will open up doors for me in the future as I continue to learn more and apply these skills and others in real-world contexts. I sat in on sessions on using data in reporting on immigration and undercovered communities — topics of which I have a keen passion. I see a future for myself writing for nonprofits and using data to tell stories about the communities I’m serving. I was able to build connections with professionals in the industry and receive career advice from many of them. This overall experience was extremely beneficial in building my data journalism skills as well as my future utilizing them in whatever context I find myself in. It is something I will never forget and, again, I am so thankful for the opportunity to attend.


Tehya Rassman

Thank you for sponsoring and supporting our trip to NICAR2020 this year. I knew I was interested in data journalism before I went, but getting the inside scoop from professional data journalists was inspiring. The conference allowed me to dip my toes into software that I had trouble starting on my own, but now, thanks to the hands-on sessions I was able to attend, I have my computer setup to continue learning. I found many of the panel sessions useful as well, especially one on interviewing tactics — very useful for me and my introverted personality. I haven’t been able to travel much while in college, so I loved being able to go somewhere I had never been before. Of course this came with its own learning (like how I love beignets and have been craving them ever since).  New Orleans has a rich culture and NICAR 2020 was an amazing learning experience, so I will forever remember those four days. Thank you so much!


Meghan Nguyen

The National Institute for Computer-Assisted Reporting Conference was an amazing opportunity to learn about data journalism. In the past three years at UT’s Journalism School, I had realized that I wanted to pursue data journalism but was only able to find limited opportunities to do so, one of them being through Professor McDonald’s Intro to Coding for Journalists class. I heard about the conference through this class, and suddenly so many more doors opened for me. At the conference I was able to take hands-on learning classes to learn skills such as R, Excel and more, as well as the opportunity to meet other student journalists and industry professionals who were interested in the same things as me. When we touched down in New Orleans, I hit the ground running. My first day at the conference consisted of sessions led by both students and journalists who had been in the industry for years; sessions about covering immigration with data, covering the Coronavirus (a very timely panel about reporting on local emergency preparedness), and a meetup with other journalists of color. There were so many sessions, panels and workshops being offered ... I was immensely happy because I was able to put together my own personalized schedule and learn useful things I was genuinely curious about. I went to sessions about investigating sexual assault, covering undercovered communities and a session about the diversity reports that newsrooms were beginning to put together (which was vital for me, since I was responsible for putting together the diversity report for the Daily Texan this semester). I met people who I can only describe as powerhouse journalists — many of them had harnessed data to break huge, impactful stories. I also went to a lengthy hands-on session that introduced me to R, a powerful open-source programming language that I hope will later take my data reporting to the next level. When I look back, attending this conference will probably be one of my most valuable experiences in my journalism education. It solidified my desire to do investigative, nonprofit data journalism, and through my conversations with other peers and colleagues at the conference, it also made me realize that I wasn’t alone. 


Minnah Zaheer

Throughout my time at UT Austin, I’ve gone through a number of transformative experiences that have each uniquely shaped my career interests and my abilities, and I definitely rank the NICAR conference among one of the most influential of those experiences. The hands-on workshops I attended gave me informative crash-courses on invaluable data journalism-related programs and techniques, and the panels I attended reaffirmed my decision to enter the journalism field and the significance of the work behind every single data story. Everyone else in attendance at the conference was incredibly personable, and networking felt natural and productive. As someone with a particular interest in data visualization and reporting on politics and elections, I entered the conference feeling a little lost and overwhelmed by the amount of existing coverage and visualization techniques — I never imagined that just four days at one conference would so significantly boost my confidence, skills, and knowledge of what’s coming in the data journalism sphere. Thank you immensely for the opportunity to attend NICAR 2020.


Rolando Hernandez

While at UT, I have gained vast amounts of knowledge and experience through student organizations, internships and of course, classes; however, none of these compare to my experience at the NICAR 2020 conference in New Orleans. While I originally had dreams to work as a producer, it wasn’t until I took Professor McDonald’s Data Reporting class that these dreams suddenly shifted. I learned the true value of numbers in the newsroom and at NICAR, I found my own goals shift again. I now want to be a data reporter, focusing in the field of audio. The attendance of this conference taught me numerous skills and introduced me to outstanding professionals in the field. At this four-day conference, I spent the entirety of the first day taking an advanced hands on course for eight hours. It was here where I learned the ins and outs of the program SQL and this new found knowledge has already been proven useful at my current internship at KXAN as an investigative intern. Using what I learned, I was able to sort through large data sets on broken traffic lights in the city of Austin. While a story wasn’t pursued, I still greatly value the knowledge gained on the first day alone. It was in this same day-long session I was able to mingle with other attendees and met Bracy Harris, a reporter with the Hechinger Report. As someone who started out in TV and later went into nonprofit investigative journalism, Harris was able to give me great advice about my next steps in my career and we easily discussed the difficulties in the industry and many complexities that come with for profit models. The next day, I attended several panels providing insight on numerous topics I’m interested in, like how to make data findings come to life on radio. While here I was able to hear a panel of NPR reporters and producers from one of my favorite podcasts, Reveal, give advice on creative ways to deliver data to the ear. One interesting way was through using Python coding to show tonal differences. The biggest takeaway for me was that sometimes your audio doesn’t have to be complex ... something as simple as volume can make your listeners understand even the most complex disparities. While I may have been unsure of my skills and credentials, it was at NICAR where my fears and uncertainties went out the window.  Through a conference of like-minded “news nerds” professionals and other students I was able to reassure myself in my own skills as a journalist. The opportunity given me to attend this event won’t be forgotten. I am immensely grateful and will remember this as one of the biggest stepping stones in my career, and for that, I will forever be thankful.


Savana Dunning

The National Institute for Computer Assisted Reporting conference this year was one of my absolute favorite experiences of my college journalism career and I want to thank you for giving me the opportunity to attend.

I was introduced to data reporting through Professor Christian McDonald’s data reporting class and fell in love with using digital tools to discover key insights into data that I can use to better tell stories about the world around us. At the conference, I attended incredibly useful hands-on sessions for Python and R, which give me a foundation of knowledge on two languages I did not know much about but was super eager to learn. I’ve now downloaded both programming languages and have been working with friends and online resources to boost those skills so that I can better use them in future reporting. 

I also got the chance to attend some spectacularly insightful panels on reporting and sourcing. As a young reporter who started college with very little experience in journalism, I often had difficulties with finding stories and building my interviewing confidence. At NICAR 2020, I learned of tools and places to look for unexplored stories and interesting angles. The panels were hosted by reporters I admire, and I got the chance to engage with them and ask them questions. At one panel in particular, ESPN reporter Tisha Thompson took the time to speak to me after a panel on interviewing. She made me feel right at home as a student among professionals. 

Even if I do not become a specifically data-oriented journalist, I am certain I will use the tools given to me by this conference to enhance my reporting to tell smarter, more informative and evidence-driven stories. I’m excited to build on the basic coding skills I was given, dig deep into data sources I was told about and find unique and interesting ways to tell people’s stories better. Thank you so much again, I am incredibly grateful.