Computer assisted reporting 2.0

Now that the SJSU J-School is cooking up a New Media class for next semester, which I’ve suggested should be mostly a practical lab for future online editors, it’s time to start thinking about the next step in revising the curriculum.

Which, of course, it’s not my job to do, but I haven’t let that stop me from making suggestions before, now have I?

Computer-assisted reporting might sound like something already on the schedule, but “Information Gathering on the Internet” is a far cry from CAR. This looks, to me, like a case of the course description outrunning the syllabus.

But I’m not sure, and all this comes with the caveat that I took J132 with one instructor, and haven’t talked to others who teach it, nor have I sat in on other versions of the class. All I know is that “Information Gathering on the Internet” in the class I was in consisted of assignments like asking a question in a Google (nee Usenet) Group, and using the answers as sources in an article.

That’s just not enough. One faculty member I talked to who had taught the class before complained to me that we weren’t even learning how to make FOIA requests. Well, that’s not enough either.

Others, myself included, have suggested that students should learn how to use an RSS feed reader and find sources on any given topic by subscribing to blog, news, and web searches. But that shouldn’t take more than an hour to accomplish.

A computer-assisted reporting class shouldn’t need to teach 20-year-old undergrads how to use a search engine; journalism students needs to learn how to bring useful information out of a database and to their readers, creating the database themselves if none exists. Finding that information, using software to organize it, and developing a usable presentation of it is the core of CAR.

Adrian Holovaty, best known as the creator of ChicagoCrime.org, a mashup of a Google Map of Chicago with police reports and crime data for the city, talked to Robert Niles of the Online Journalism Review recently.

Holovaty’s advice?

“J-schools need to get way more technical. A graduate of a journalism school should be a master of collecting data — whether the old-fashioned way (by talking to humans) or through automated means. The closest thing journalism schools currently have (to my knowledge) is computer-assisted reporting classes. Those classes should be required, in my opinion, and even better would be for j-schools to partner with computer-science departments so that journalism students would get some experience coding.”

To some extent, I agree.

But, as I’ve said about the New Media class, this isn’t for everyone. I don’t think requiring undergraduates to learn PHP, Perl, or Python gets us anywhere. One or two sections of J132 focused to computer-assisted reporting might be enough, and those sections could start with existing software (like Django) and databases (city council voting records?) to get a feel for manipulating a set of data.

Learning to code these things themselves would be nice and all, but I don’t see any room for that in the curriculum, much less an undergraduate’s schedule. That’s the sort of thing they’re going to have to do on their own in the Comp Sci department, prerequisites and all.

Go read the whole interview with Holovaty. You’ll get an idea of what exists and where things are going in the CAR field.

Bonus link: Tim Porter points out the importance of Holovaty’s advice to newsrooms – “Hire people who know what’s possible.”

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