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Why Tomorrow’s Journalists Need a Strong STEAM Education

Every Job is a STEAM Job is our series looking at why your kids will need tech literacy and coding skills to succeed in their future careers, no matter where those careers take them. Previously, we looked at how technology is changing the professionals protecting our national parks, and today we’re taking a close look at journalism in the digital age. 

There have been countless predictions about the future of journalism and media as technology changes how society consumes news. These prognostications have varied, from the death of journalism altogether to the rise of digital reporting through social media. This murkiness has left many journalists, and prospective journalism students, wondering what the field will look like in the next 10 years.

Will they have jobs?

Will they pay well?

The answer lies in technology.

If tomorrow’s journalists want to stand out — and want their reporting to stand out — they need to understand how technology is changing the industry and adapt with a strong STEAM skill set.

How Journalism and Technology Work Together

Technology isn’t an optional addition to good storytelling. Today’s reporters utilize various tools to convey a message multiple ways to connect with multiple audiences, and to clarify and further explain concepts.

“If we value clear writing and the ability to communicate clearly with a wide variety of people, we should value teaching our students the basics of computer languages and digital communications,” TCU journalism professor Aaron Chimbel writes at MediaShift.

“These skills will only be more important going forward, and more importantly code is the future of digital and global communication. If we don’t expose our students to this — students we want to lead the next generation of journalism and communication — we are doing them a disservice.”

Researchers at the Tow-Knight Center surveyed 70 news leaders and media companies to learn what skills were in-demand when it came to hiring. They filtered the 21 top skills into two categories:

  • foundational skills, which media companies have sought for generations,
  • and transformational skills, which are required to move journalism into the 21st century.

“Coding/development, audience development/user data and metrics, visual storytelling, digital design, and social media distribution were the top five hiring priorities among the newsroom leaders surveyed,” researchers Mark Stencel and Kim Perry write. “All of them fall into our Transformational skills category. Only one skillset that we categorize as Foundational — reporting, writing, editing — was a hiring priority in more than half of the newsrooms surveyed.”

However, instead of viewing programming as a barrier to entry into the field, future journalists can view it as an additional tool to help them succeed in their careers.

“The attitude that journalists need to constantly catch up with all the technological information that they don’t have neglects the fact that reporters have a lot of knowledge and skills that are directly applicable to working in digital journalism,” Erika Owens told Journalism News. “Shift the mindset from catching up to thinking about the areas of your work that could be improved by coding, and then work alongside experienced programmers to better serve your audiences overall.”

Owens is only asking for a small mental shift, but it could make waves in how technophobic writers approach programming.

Journalism is shifting, but are colleges and universities adapting to the demand, as well? Will tomorrow’s graduates be equipped with the necessary skills to get hired in their field?

College students in a lecture hall

Journalism Schools Are Evolving Their Curricula

The main problem facing journalism schools is what needs to be taught. Educators and administrators are trying to incorporate digital media skills into the curricula, but are unsure exactly how much students need to know in order to stay relevant.

“Among educators and even news professionals, there appears to be no consensus about whether journalism schools should be teaching computer programming,” Jackie Spinner writes at the American Journalism Review.

“Even those who believe it should be taught are not sure exactly how. The issue represents the great unsolved Rubik’s Cube in journalism education today, made all the more pressing by needs of news organizations like Hoy [a Spanish-language daily in Chicago] to have people fluent in journalism who also can develop news applications and tell interactive stories.”

Fortunately, there are several people within the halls of academia working to identify what future students need to know. During her time as a Knight Journalism Fellow at Stanford, Cindy Royal analyzed what types of programming journalism students needed and how they were taught.

“There is a range of technology skills that journalists should possess to complement storytelling,” Royal writes. “They should be able to modify basic HTML code in a content management system, set up a website for a side project, scrape a website for data, or understand how to use an application programming interface (API). They may need an understanding of JavaScript to work with visualization tools, or be asked to collaborate on a team that includes technologists.”

Despite the uncertainty in what should be taught, most professors and industry professionals agree on one thing: Journalism and technology cannot be siloed any longer. One cannot be a successful journalist without a basic understanding of the digital world and the knowledge to navigate it.

“The task faced by journalism and communication schools and departments in upgrading their curricula is akin to training pilots to fly experimental planes that are only partially operational for an aviation industry being totally transformed,” Jerome Aumente writes at Nieman Reports.

“Some are headed toward wholesale revision of their course offerings; others are choosing to retrofit their existing courses to accommodate the interactive, multimedia world. … These skills — taught until recently as separate majors — must be converged in the curricula, as they are now being used in newsrooms.”

A classic typewriter

Students Are Still Intimidated by STEAM Classes

While institutions decide what should be taught and how, it’s up to the students to pursue tech literacy. This has lead to mixed results, as many students are apprehensive about adding programming to their skillsets.

Mallory Busch, graduate of Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism, told IJnet about her experiences in coding. She had been told that is was a valuable skill but ignored the advice because she wanted to pursue “traditional journalism.” Then, when she was interviewing for an internship her prospective employer asked whether she knew how to code.

“And I just said, ‘Oh yeah, totally!’” Busch said. “So, now I had a week and a half to learn some code. … Shockingly, I did not get the internship. But I spent the summer after my job going to cafes, learning CSS.”

Once she started learning, she was fascinated by programming languages and eventually used her skills to land internships at Time Inc. and The Chicago Tribune.

Busch isn’t alone. Many students are encouraged to take programming classes while they’re pursuing their journalism degrees, but few actually sign up for them.

U.S. News & World Report journalist Lindsey Cook spent a year interviewing more than 500 University of Georgia students majoring in computer science or journalism, along with professors who taught in their respective fields. She found three common reasons why journalism students avoided programming classes: they didn’t know they should, they thought they would fail, or they didn’t think they would enjoy computer programming.

“The narrative that journalists are words people, not numbers people — and therefore avoid math at all costs — has become embedded in the culture of journalism,” Cook writes at OpenNews Source.

“This belief seeps into students, as well, even though when pressed most students admitted they had been successful in math classes throughout their schooling. Despite that history of success, journalism students were sure they would not do well in computer science (or other STEM) classes. … Many students agreed that someone had to be really smart to be a CS major.”

Cook even conducted interviews with UGA journalism students who said they worried their programming skills would limit their job prospects, as they were concerned they would end up working in IT or only writing for technology publications. To overcome this fear of STEAM, many professionals recommend starting with basic programs such as Hour of Code, then moving on only when you feel comfortable.

“When learning the basics of coding, start small and simple,” Chris Hister writes to journalists looking to learn to code. “Working with a basic language like HTML or CSS, where there are a lot of online support and samples to choose from, will definitely make the transition to other languages a lot easier

While learning to code is an important part of journalism, there are other technological skillsets that are important for those looking to succeed in the industry.

The Rise of Data Journalism

When most people think about technology and journalism, social media and interactive content come to mind. However, there’s a whole other side that journalists need to embrace — which also emphasizes the value of a solid STEAM foundation.

Many journalists believe that data is the new currency when it comes to storytelling. While getting a good scoop is certainly an important part of journalism, reporters need to back up their stories with facts — requiring a basic understanding of math and data analysis.

“I’m a huge believer in the fact that journalists should have real skills in as many areas as they can,” Julia Angwin tells the Associated Press. “So for my own purposes, I have an MBA so I can read financial statements. I know how to program and am a pretty tech-literate person, so I use a lot of those skills for analyzing big data and collecting my own data. And I think that’s the way of the future.”

In many ways, data helps journalists take ownership of the stories themselves and decide how the story is told.

“Many news outlets have already taken to using data to drive a range of stories, from the profound to the surprising,” Martha Kang writes at MediaShift. “ProPublica and NPR calculated how much limbs are worth in each state to highlight the dramatic disparity in workers’ comp benefits across the U.S.

“… Conversations about data-driven journalism have mostly focused on large-scale projects by industry powerhouses and new outlets like FiveThirtyEight and Vox. But the job shouldn’t be left to big newsrooms with dedicated teams. In this era of big data, every journalist must master basic data skills to make use of all sources available to them.”

For example, 2016 saw the release of the Panama Papers, which confirmed that some of the world’s wealthiest leaders were hiding money offshore. The publication was the result of more than 11.5 million records by 370 journalists in 76 countries.

“The technological feat of so many journalists obtaining, organising, disseminating, and publishing news stories all over the planet is even more impressive if one considers that, historically, journalists have not been known for co-operating with competing news organisations,” Charles Lewis writes at The Guardian.

“Obviously, this important work was neither feasible nor fathomable in the last century, before people even used the phrase ‘big data’, let alone possessed the technical knowledge and understanding to actually create the platforms to facilitate such an investigation.”

However, data manipulation is another field that journalism schools are failing to teach their students, forcing future reporters to learn these skills on their own. Charles Berret and Cheryl Phillips, co-authors of Teaching Data and Computational Journalism, analyzed 113 journalism schools to identify which were teaching students the basics of data journalism. Only 59 of the schools offered data courses.

“At minimum, these courses taught students to use spreadsheets to analyze data for journalistic purposes,” Berret and Phillips wrote. “At the other end of the spectrum, some schools provided far more, teaching multiple classes in programming skills, such as scraping the web, building news apps, or creating advanced data visualizations. … Of the 59 programs we identified that teach at least one data journalism class, 27 of the schools offered just one course, usually at the introductory level.”

Only 14 of the respondents (12 percent) offered two classes. Students looking to seek a career in journalism should keep this in mind when they start applying to universities and are trying to find the best possible program to match their career goals.

A news anchor interviewing a man

Journalistic Integrity in the Digital Age

While tomorrow’s journalists look to acquire the best possible skills to succeed, the industry is changing in other ways. Ethics, reporting methods and source attribution are evolving to meet technology’s needs, virtually changing how we view journalism as a whole.

“The field of journalism is changing rapidly as technology advances, audience habits change, the marketplace evolves and the news cycle hits warp speed,” Steve Buttry writes for OnMedia.

“Some argue that journalism ethics need to change as well. The list of ethical challenges facing journalism today is a long one. How can we get at the truth when flooded by unverified information? How do we maintain integrity as new business models and partnerships become necessary for survival? How should journalists behave on social media platforms?”

In his interview, Buttry attempts to unwrap these concerns, but there’s one key underlying message: Without tech literacy, modern journalists risk publishing inaccurate news, which can damage their reputations while spreading misinformation to local and even global communities.

This isn’t to say there’s an answer for everything. There are still many gray areas in digital journalism ethics that industry experts disagree over.

“Some journalists are prohibited from voting, donating to political campaigns, or even volunteering — rules that stand in stark contrast to the first-person, subjective, anecdotal writing that permeates the web,” Yael Grauer writes at Contently. “But transitioning to a digital medium not only complicates existing ethical concerns; it also raises new ethical questions.”

Grauer explained five ethical conundrums facing journalism and challenging how we view the industry, from removing controversial content to posting unverified information.

However, it’s important to make one thing clear: technology isn’t destroying the field of journalism, but rather forcing it to evolve.

“What journalism is experiencing is the full blown force of what Joseph Schumpeter called creative destruction,” Michael Rosenblum writes at the Huffington Post. “That is, that the arrival of new technologies destroy old businesses (e.g., automobiles to horse and buggy business), but also create new ones. … Most media companies understand at least that they have to do ‘something’ with the Internet and the digital revolution.”

As the journalism industry experiences the growing pains of evolution, it’s up to current reporters and future journalists to evolve to meet the needs of the market. This might not be the easiest era to enter the field of journalism, but those who are willing to adapt and acquire the right skills will find it’s certainly an exciting time to be a reporter.

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