Tips For Future Data Journalists

Tips For Future Data Journalists

During the spring break, I attended the NICAR (National Institute for Computer-Assisted Reporting) conference. For those who are interested in Data Journalism, here are three general things I learned from other professionals:

First, be a self-starter. Data Journalism is not a brand-new concept now, but the practice of Data Journalism is still unfamiliar to a lot of journalists, especially traditional journalists. How to collect data? How to use data? How to find stories from data? How to make data visual?  All of those are what we need to know on the way to becoming a data journalist. And all of those have different answers from different people. There is no uniform way to deal with stories based on data. Thus, when getting a new dataset, we need to figure it out by ourselves. Meanwhile, the total amount of data journalists is limited, so sometimes it might be difficult to acquire knowledge from former journalists because it may not exist. In some big companies, there are some data teams which have journalists, developers, designers and data scientists, and you can receive related training about data journalism and get help from others. However in most companies, especially small companies, there may be several data guys or even just you. A data journalist may do all the data-related things by himself, from doing analysis to data visualization. So that’s why it’s important to learn some things by yourself. If you cannot teach yourself, find resources, or take extra classes, you won’t be able to learn anything.

Second, be familiar with programming languages. Before going to the NICAR conference, I always thought I needed to learn every programming language. I had taken some classes about Python and SQL, and I am learning R, HTML/CSS and JavaScript now. I practiced them only when I was doing my homework. After finishing homework, I forgot all of it very quick. So it made me nervously wonder if I should focus only on one language and practice it often. However Joanna, a journalist from Financial Times, told me that it’s not necessary to be an expert of all the programming languages. We just need to be familiar with the languages and be able to read them. “You can find a lot of open source online, so you don’t really need to code everything by yourself. And people change really quick. Everyone was using Ruby three years ago, but now no one uses it anymore.”

Third, be confident. Who can be the best data journalist? People with a journalism background or people with a computer science background? There is no answer for this question. Since everyone has his/her own strengths, it’s impossible to tell who is better. In the field of data journalism, we don’t compare but cooperate with each other. I used to be lacking confidence because I thought I was the worst coder. But some data people are also not good at telling stories. Thus, even if you are afraid of coding, just learn it from others. At the same time, if you are expert of reporting, share your experience with others. The tradition of data journalism is helping others and working together.


Baiyu Gao
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