7 countries, 9 teachers: a dossier of data journalism

It doesn’t matter which country you’re in, or what university you visit, there’s a common refrain that you’ll hear in the halls of J-schools across the globe: “I’m not good at math”

Check the full text on « Data Journalism.com » by European Journalism Centre

All over the world, and even in Tunisia, media landscapes have developed to the point that the job market today requires technical skills, as well as linguistic skills, to carry out real journalistic work.

In 2017, through an online survey we conducted with Tunisian journalists, working across newspapers, radio, and television, we demonstrated the value of technical skills for new graduates. Unsurprisingly, our survey found that 33% of journalists identified writing skills as important — yet, almost the same number, at 32%, highlighted the importance of technical skills.

In Tunisia, discussions around the teaching of journalism have often focused on the linguistic practice of journalism. The technical dimension, which has disrupted the job market, has not been fully considered, although some universities have added standalone modules into their journalism education programs. But we still yet to see any in-depth change.

Even so, these last seven years, we’ve seen more conversations about open data, open source, big data, data mining, data warehouses, and the potential for their use in journalism. In academia, we have really started talking about databases in Tunisia, particularly in the fields of computer science or statistics. This means that most of the movement has been in engineering schools — two universities offer a Masters in Big Data — and, while there is one public school in journalism and three private ones, they neither offer a degree in data journalism or a separate subject on it.

As a result, the teaching of data journalism is always by individual initiative, on the part of a professor who usually teaches web writing or editing, online journalism, or similar. For my own part, this was how I introduced my third year web journalism students to the field. Here, my students learnt how to change data into graphs:

Work produced by Nouha’s web journalism students.

There has also been more movement, following the Arab Spring, when academic staff at the Higher Institute of Arts and Multimedia of Manouba, launched a Masters in Media Engineering. This degree has led to three specialties: web development, 3D visualisation, and community management. Students learn how to develop data stories, to manage data, and even to write, by taking courses in data visualisation, data information, and more generalist courses, such as online editing, which include data skills.

Despite these developments, for many journalism schools, integrating specialised coursework in data and computation presents something of a chicken-and-egg conundrum. Without a data education, there’s few educators to teach data. To help, I’ve developed the following steps on bringing data into a curriculum:

  1. While schools may wish to prepare their graduates for this emerging field, the field itself may not yet have enough teachers in its ranks. So, try scheduling guest lectures as a transitional solution.
  2. New tools are developing quickly, and it is critical for the faculty to continue to grow, learn, and change as the field itself develops. Everyone has to follow the new wave.
  3. Many universities provide computer labs and studios for classes. The primary advantage is the certainty that each student will have a workstation with the necessary technical specifications and software installed. The primary disadvantage is that students may graduate without these tools at home, which they need to practice the skills that they have learnt.
  4. Using MOOCs in a complementary fashion with university data journalism courses could help professors integrate new skills into their offerings.
  5. Journalism schools should build collaborative partnerships with other disciplines.

Journalism is not a narrow set of traditional newsroom skills, but instead encompasses whatever tools and methods have, in one way or another, been made journalistic.

Several journalism schools around the world have begun building bridges with computer science departments by opening research centers, co-teaching and cross-listing classes, and even developing joint degree programs. This should be the way forward in Tunisia, where expertise is siloed in our journalism schools and multimedia institute. Instead, let’s gather experiences and build a comprehensive approach to teaching the country’s future data journalists.

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