A data journalism class at the School of Media and Communication places Temple University at the forefront of a new wave of programs teaching aspiring reporters how to crunch numbers and find new ways to tell stories hidden in data.
Assistant Professor Meredith Broussard, a computer scientist-turned-reporter, said she created her class to teach “the practice of finding stories in numbers and using numbers to tell stories.”
David Herzog, RTF ’84, the academic adviser for the National Institute for Computer-Assisted Reporting (NICAR), sees a growing trend at the nation’s top universities of classes that target the needs of the changing journalism job market.
“A lot of the classes that had been in place for several years are traditional [computer-assisted reporting] classes” that focused on the number analysis, he said. “What’s happening how is we’re seeing more and more schools who are realizing the value of offering classes that go beyond that. Temple’s class … is in the first wave of those trying to do that.”
Throughout the semester, students have learned how to use databases, spreadsheets and visualization tools and are developing the ability to find and clean data for investigative stories. Students will end the semester by creating an interactive piece of data journalism.
Finding truth in numbers
Marcus McCarthy, 21, a junior journalism major from Charlestown, R.I., said data journalism is one of the best things to come out of the media’s shifting identity.
“Although I appreciate the place for anecdotal evidence, many times it isn’t enough to tell a story since the sample size is typically too small. However, accounting for the bias data can bring, statistical evidence can more accurately portray the larger issues facing our society,” he said. “This means that we can now take on the issues that we were previously unable to accurately report on. That prospect is very exciting to me and I see it making a big difference in bettering our society.”
It seems McCarthy has learned one of the key points of Broussard’s class: the existence of data doesn’t always equal truth.
“We tend to think of data as this immutable object that exists outside of any kind of human intervention – because there’s data, that means it’s true,” Broussard explained. “But the thing is, data are created by people. It’s socially constructed by people who ask certain types of questions and who have certain agendas. Understanding that dimension of data helps us understand the numbers and the social context of the numbers.”
Broussard, 39, brings to students her own history of practical experience in data journalism. As a journalist, she has worked on a variety of data-driven projects that provide insight on the reporting methods students will need to be successful in today’s competitive job market.
Using her creative and technical skills, Broussard last year created stackedup.org, a site that showcases an algorithm that mines Philadelphia School District data to determine if schools have enough of the right books to equip students with the knowledge to succeed on standardized tests. The articles she wrote based on her analysis prompted the district to reallocate books to schools with the most need, as well as make some staff changes and financial reforms.
Data leads to a Pulitzer
Dylan Purcell, JOUR ’00, a data journalist at The Philadelphia Inquirer for the past eight years, knows the impact this type of work can have. He was part of the paper’s Pulitzer Prize-winning team that worked on a series of stories about violence in the city’s schools. Purcell dove deep into the school district’s crime statistics during the investigation.
“No one had ever looked at the district’s crime patterns,” he said. “They were touting a big drop in crime, but they weren’t accounting for the enrollment dropping drastically.”
Without hard numbers to support their reporting, “I don’t know if we would have been able to change as much as we did. The data can reinforce your traditional storytelling.”
Purcell has seen his work evolve over the past decade in the way he tells his part of a story. Much of his work includes interactive online graphics and maps – an encouraging welcome mat for the next generation of reporters now learning how to use this technology.
“There is a either a requirement or a strong recommendation to have at least some basic data skills,” Herzog said of the current job market. “Employers are seeing the value of having journalists who know how to do this kind of work, so there is a premium being placed on these skills. This class is very strong in that regard.”