Posted by: structureofnews | November 12, 2010

The Basic Skills

A piece at Columbia Journalism Review offers more support for training journalists in database and data analysis skills – it’s not a hard case to make, and frankly the real mystery is why it still has to be made.

In an age of data – where more and more information is available in structured formats, where software tools are increasingly powerful and can allow us to analyze and visualize information much more easily; and where journalists no longer have a monopoly on simply reporting the days, events – it’s critical for us to bring more to the table.

Against this backdrop, the ability to find, manipulate, and analyze data has become increasingly important, not only for teams of investigative journalists, but for beat reporters. It is hard to conceive of a beat that doesn’t generate data—even arts reporters evaluate budgets and have access to nonprofit organizations’ tax returns. What’s more, because the universe of data is vast and growing, and the stories that use it are rare, data-based journalism has become a powerful way to stand out in the crowded news cycle.

The case the article cites – royalties for mineral rights in Southern Virginia – is a perfect example of how learning database skills can yield great work.  And the one-week Investigative Editors and Reporters Computer-Assisted Reporting Bootcamp that Daniel Gilbert, the reporter chasing the story, took is a great one.  (Mileage may vary, though – not everyone who attends one wins a Pulitzer right afterwards, as Gilbert did.)

But the problem really isn’t in the lack of software skills – as I’ve posted before, it’s mindset.  And the mindset pervades the whole industry.  As the CJR piece notes,

At the same time, making database skills and training a priority can be tough for overburdened reporters and editors. Nor do journalism schools necessarily give such skills pride of place—in fact, many teach them piecemeal, if at all. At the graduate level, New York University requires students in its Science, Health, and Environmental Reporting (SHERP) concentration to obtain a solid grounding in numeracy. In other concentrations, however, these skills play a smaller role.

The Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism offers a handful of relevant classes, including investigative reporting, a course called Evidence and Inference, and a new addition, Digital Media: Interactive Workshop, which stresses storytelling through data and interactive presentation. But there is no data course that all students must take in order to graduate. “We don’t require every student to know how to use Excel in the same way we require them to know how to use FinalCut Pro or a digital camera,” said Bill Grueskin, Dean of Academic Affairs at Columbia.

Bill’s is among the more numerate journalists out there, having served for many years as the managing editor of and in a host of other senior roles at The Wall Street Journal.  So it’s worth asking: Why doesn’t Columbia – and every other journalism school – require Excel to graduate?  Surely that’s more useful that FinalCut Pro?

In fact, just learning Excel probably is putting the cart before the horse.  Excel helps you manipulate numbers, data and information more easily; but before you do that you need to understand the numbers you’re manipulating – and that’s where requiring numeracy before graduation is even more important.

Beyond the basic skills – making sure people understand the difference between mean, median and mode, how to calculate percentages and percentage changes, knowing how to figure out orders of magnitudes and so on – all journalists should really have a deeper grounding in numbers and their role in the world.

What are the key questions to ask numbers?  Is an event likely or rare?  What should one compare a given number to?  What are we measuring and what are the assumptions we’re making?  What context should a given number be put in?  And so on.

Journalists need to understand the concepts behind statistics, surveys, basic probability, and much more.  And they shouldn’t be allowed to graduate before they master that – any more than they would be allowed to write if they didn’t understand grammar.



  1. […] an addendum to my earlier posting about what core skills journalists should have after getting out of J-school: Is learning Excel […]

  2. […] We Don’t Know We Don’t Know I’ve written a number of times about the skills I think journalists need to have to survive and thrive in the future.  […]

  3. […] made the case several times before that journalists in general need to much more numerate to excel in the age of […]

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