Journalism department should change with industry

by Alexander C. Kaufman / Beacon Staff • April 28, 2011

 

Three weeks ago I left the journalism department.

Many of my classmates and friends were shocked. Journalism is my “thing.” Over the last two years I have obsessively studied the art of the perfect lede, the ethics of protecting a source, and the legal loopholes of libel lawsuits. I work a desk job at The Boston Globe. And next year I will serve as editor-in-chief of this student-run newspaper. I also have worn a WikiLeaks armband in public.

The idea of being a journalist enchanted me when I was 16. And it wasn’t just the idea of a dapper fedora. After spending my adolescence privately penning crappy poems and unsatisfying fiction stories, writing journalism seemed like the right path for me — a way to connect my love of writing with a sense of duty and civic responsibility.

So I came to college to become an expert multimedia journalist.

But as I began taking 300-level classes, I found most of my classwork involved reporting and writing 500-word articles and practicing inverted pyramid story structure; I feared that, though my classes were molding me into merely a reporter, I was not learning to be a journalist.

The way I see it, the two words’ longstanding synonymity is rapidly fading. The gap between reporting and journalizing is growing in the modern media landscape as governments collect and release data online and websites such as WikiLeaks publish massive caches of raw documents for all the world to see.

A computer reports, a human journalizes.

In my experience, Emerson’s J-school fails to realize that contemporary newspeople must do much more than gather information and break news — they must curate, contextualize, and, for those growing number of stories that are born of quantitative data, visualize it.

Though one upper-level course teaches basic interactive designing, Tim Riley, the college’s journalist-in-residence, said the department is uncertain about the future of graphic and website design in the changing curriculum.

“That’s a big debate in the department. I go back and forth on that,” he said. “If  you want to be a journalist and you want to avoid coding, you can do that but I don’t think you’ll get as far in the industry.”

Meanwhile, Darnell Little, an associate professor at Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism said that they offer several such design classes. “I do think having a working knowledge of how to do basic things in databases is going to be more and more important and more and more required by newsrooms looking to hire people,” he said.

Just look at how the professionals are doing it — they’re making stories that are more than just readable or watchable. They’re clickable.

When the anti-secrecy website WikiLeaks began releasing a trove of files on Guantanamo Bay detainees three days ago, The Guardian created a database of documents, searchable by prisoners’ mugshots, nationalities, affiliated organizations, or names.

The lead story on the homepage of the online-only Texas Tribune is an interactive spreadsheet showing changes to the state’s congressional districts. Viewers can filter the information by political party, margin of change, or by which districts have open seats.

After a massive tsunami and earthquake devastated Japan last month, NYTimes.com featured a graphic allowing users to analyze satellite images of the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Plant before and after the dual disasters. Drag the bar on the photo right, and the atomic reactors are fine and the shrubbery outside the buildings is neatly pruned. Drag the bar left to witness destruction.

This leaves me wondering — why am I not learning to do that?

To be fair, I realize now that I neither want to be a journalist nor a reporter. I switched my major to political communication because I want to analyze, opine, and push legislators to make change based on what journalists present —perhaps through work at a non-profit or an advocacy group.

Still, my limited experience in Emerson’s journalism department leads me to believe many of my classmates’ future work may lose relevance to a wider audience that is in need of something more than carefully worded blurbs that say in 500 words what could be put in 140 characters.

Don’t get me wrong, there has been a considerable push to converge the print and broadcast programs into one multimedia curriculum where all students know how to shoot and edit video and audio as well as pen a print article. But in the 21st century, coders who create tools for interactive storytelling are replacing raconteurs.

Journalism students at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology take art and computer science classes to learn how to create interactive graphics and automatically updated databases.

According to Andrew Whitacre, the communication manager for the Center for Future Civic Media at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, HTML is quickly becoming as crucial as the inverted pyramid.

“What I think is going to be of great import is people studying journalism having, at the very least, a basic knowledge of coding and database building,” Whitacre said in an interview yesterday. “Students will take art and computer science visualization classes. They will figure out how to tell stories that are evolving all the time.”

The speedy visualization of information databases not only makes it easier for people to explore information and discover their own paths to personal relevance, it can help journalists create change — not by analyzing the effects of what has happened — but by affecting change on what’s happening.