Has coding become journalism’s most important skill?

Journalism is changing faster than ever before. The rise of technology has not only changed the business model for media but also its approach to content. Data is the new content. Of course journalism is still about storytelling, but the way those stories are told is changing rapidly.

Drones are fast becoming an accepted reporting tool. Computers can also be instructed to write basic stories. They can change stories too. For example, take a look at this story from NY Times Upshot about the best and worst places to grow up in the US and notice how the text changes according to the data selected.

The latest development in the field is sensor-based journalism. Buy an Arduino board and a few sensors, write a program for the processor and you are in business. An interesting example saw a group of university students, measuring the air pollution in different parts of San Diego. Access to water points in Tanzania or water pollution in streams and dams used as potable water in South Africa are other experiments which have been tried out. It is undeniable that the influence of technology on journalism especially IT and coding is growing.

And that begs the question: where is data journalism going?


To answer this question it is important to focus on the latest developments in data journalism. Data journalism originates from journalists using computer-based tools from the social sciences to enhance their reporting.

Philip Meyer was one of the first to do a survey and use the results in a news story. This line in the development was called CAR-Computer Assisted Reporting. The essential characteristics of CAR are:

  • The story is central and produced according to journalistic professional standards;
  • Stories were investigative;
  • Samples were used in surveys to test hypotheses;
  • Data were not published only the results were used;
  • The public was not involved in research and publishing.

So CAR marries social science with journalism.

Open Data

The next development came from the open source movement and open data movement. Examples of organisations working in this space include Code for Africa and its Hacks/Hackers community. This new step brings journalism more under the influence of computer sciences and big data. So the paradigm also changes:

  • The focus is less on the story but on the data: datasets and analysis are published together with infographics (for example D3: data driven documents);
  • The public is involved in getting data or analysing data;
  • Data are complete sets and not samples;
  • Use of code and algorithms for analysis, for example Python and R are becoming popular.

Coders taking over

This means that data journalism is moving away from the social science based investigations and storytelling, towards data collecting, analysis and publishing based on code, algorithms and software form the computer sciences. Are we going to: more IT less journalism, less professional standards and more open network production with public participation? Are the coders taking over the newsroom?

I don’t think so. Coders are offering their knowledge skills outside the newsroom to journalists. There are plenty of services available for data journalists for making graphs, maps or combinations but also for analysis of social networks.

Examples of these tools include: datawrapper, many eyes, cartodb or Tableau. Many Dutch newspapers use LocalFocus for a quick data visualisations.

Secondly, coders and former journalists are increasingly coming together and offering their skills to the media for enhanced data journalism projects. These are all new startups, trying to create a market position for data journalism.

Only a small number of coders and developers work directly in the newsroom. And those that do tend to be at big media houses that can afford the extra resource. If these media houses regularly do data journalism, it pays off to hire a coder and train them in journalism. This is often cheaper and easier than training a journalist in computer science.

Pointless job title
What is left for the data journalists in the newsroom? You can outsource your data project. Or the journalist dumps the data in the container of a data service and collects the result.

As Duc Quang Nguyen writes in his article ‘Data Journalist a Pointless Job Title’: “The rise of simple free interactive charting solutions … has considerably democratized data visualization. What used to be performed only by data journalists is now more commonly a standard skill among digital journalists.”

In the digital era, journalism has to re-invent itself. This not done through outsourcing or adding new specialists to the newsroom and running the risk of making data journalism a pointless job title. Journalists should be basically trained in the new data journalism tools in order to do the easier data projects themselves and cooperate with coders and developers in more demanding researches.



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