Why journalists need data and coding skills more than ever


By Jéssica Cruz

Knowing how to use data to report stories remains an in-demand skill for journalists across the globe, experts said during Brazil’s 12th Congress of Investigative Journalism. The event featured more than 10 workshops, panels and lectures about the latest developments in data journalism, as well as plenty of advice for those just getting started in this field.

“Even in countries where it’s hard to get decent data, there are people exploring, finding something,” explained Simon Rogers, the data editor at Google. “Every government in the world has data, even Afghanistan.”

(TOP: Screenshot of a coding session. Photo: JournalismUK).

Marco Túlio Pires, the Google News Lab lead for Brazil and Latin America, said that journalists have a responsibility to explore open source databases, seeking stories that otherwise wouldn’t be evident, while also pressuring the government to make more data available online.

“We are not expecting that any regular citizen will dig into these databases, but journalists are being paid for it,” he said. “As journalists we cannot give up, we have to push and push the government to release [datasets]. That is our job, right?”

Pires recommended that those interested in getting started with data journalism should take online courses in order to learn the basics. Organizations like Internews in Africa and Asia, School of Data, the Knight Center for Journalism in the AmericasHong Kong University and many others in the Middle East can be helpful starting points for finding these courses.

“If a journalist doesn’t have easy access to internet, it is going to be a little more complicated, but some organizations offer itinerant courses,” Pires said. “School of Data and Internews are two examples. They go to places like Afghanistan and Somalia to train local journalists.”

Pires also stressed that knowing the basics of coding is becoming a necessity for journalists who work with data.

“I would recommend Python because it is easy to learn, but it can be any language, whether it’s JavascriptRuby or C++,” he said. “The journalist doesn’t have to be an expert, but if he knows how to talk to the computer, it will give to him an autonomy that is unprecedented.”

One example of using coding to drive an investigation is a 2013 ProPublica app, which analyzes which content is most likely to be censored on Chinese social media site Sina Weibo. A ProPublica team created software which monitored 100 Sina Weibo accounts over a 12-day period, and found that more than 5 percent of their posts were deleted by censors.

This is the kind of story that would have otherwise been impossible to do if journalists didn’t know how to create and then use the necessary software, Pires said.

Expanding the range of stories that journalists can pursue is one reason why it’s so crucial for news companies to invest in data journalism training, he argued. Doing so “is going to put journalism inside the technology revolution,” he added.

Knowing how to code can also help journalists tackle projects with massive datasets (Excel can fit more than a million rows of data, but that may not be enough for some stories). Coding can also help journalists automate repetitive processes like downloading countless spreadsheets.

“I’m code uneducated,” said Natália Mazotte, cofounder of Gênero e Número (Gender and Number), a Brazilian news site that uses data to explore gender inequality. “But learning to code is the same as learning a new language. It will take years, but if you understand at least what that code is saying to you, it is great. Many people give up at the very first step.”

Journalists should attempt to “interview” their datasets just as they would a human source, Mazotte advised. Before deciding whether you’re going to tell your story through maps, charts or other kinds of visualizations, it’s crucial that journalists first understand what story they want to tell, other experts said.

“You have to interview your database first,” Pires said. “When you understand the answers, that is the point when you are going to think, ‘How am I gonna tell that story?’”

And if you get stuck, seek out the experts who can help you.

“Ask questions to data journalists,” Rogers advised. “They are very friendly, they like to talk about what they do and how they do it.”

(Reproduced from ICFJ’s ijnet blog).