Big Brother may have convinced his minions in George Orwell’s “1984″ that two and two make five, but journalists should know better.
As I reflect on what I’ve learned about journalism this semester, one lesson stands out: You can’t draw a line between math and reporting. In fact, number crunching grows more essential every day as the industry shifts to the Web.
Take it from Matt Waite. He won a Pulitzer Prize for PolitiFact, a website that checks whether politicians’ words are accurate. Needless to say, the University of Nebraska at Lincoln journalism professor knows what he’s talking about.
“I’ve always hated the newsroom culture of almost celebrating math ignorance. For an industry that prides itself on being smart, to turn around and glorify ignorance is dumb. And to continue to push that self-selection just calcifies ignorance and weakens journalism.”
If you’re still not sold, Google the Knight-Mozilla News Technology Partnership. Five selected “technologists” will spend 2012 in newsrooms developing open-source Web tools, according to Mozilla’s blog. And here’s what Dan Sinker, the partnership head, wrote two days before announcing the fellows (it’s a lengthy excerpt, but do read it):
“I had a brief exchange on Twitter yesterday, with ProPublica’s Scott Klein, about how high school poets end up as journalists and how he hopes that high school mathletes start to follow the same path. The basic idea was that kids are turned on to something at a young age and then search for viable career paths to follow. So for a high-school poet, they look around and think “I like to write, what professions are going to let me become a kick-ass writer.” Traditionally, journalism has absorbed a lot of those folks and has been stronger for it. Now, posited Klein, with the ascendancy of data journalism and the growing need for high-level developers to break news by crunching numbers, the hope is that kids that are switched on to math will draw the same conclusion and wind up revolutionizing journalism. But, I countered, how many high school newspapers are doing data journalism right now? Because that’s the first step. My guess? Not many—and that’s a loss.”
Two points. First, I have to admit that journalism appealed to me partially because I thought I could avoid numbers. My combined love for writing, politics and consuming news is what really solidified my choice, but I did walk out of Advanced Placement statistics thinking my math career was finished. Not so much. Sure, I’m not solving differential equations at Mizzou. But I am using the top section of the keyboard much more than I thought I would. This is largely because I’m learning Visual Basic as part of an information-technology minor. There’s a growing demand for journalists who can program, as illustrated by the ample job listings on the website News Nerd Jobs. (Thanks to David Herzog, Missouri School of Journalism associate professor and National Institute for Computer-Assisted Reporting academic adviser, for showing me the site.)
Second, ProPublica. In 2010, it won a Pulitzer Prize for Investigative Reporting, the first Pulitzer given to an online-only outlet. ProPublica does incredible work with numbers, one of my favorite examples being a tool that shows income inequality across U.S. counties. As journalism students, we hear a lot of doubt about being able to find jobs after graduation. Well, here’s your new rebuttal: I’m studying to become a data journalist. It’s a growing profession, you’ll say.
So, to high school seniors trying to pick majors: Don’t choose journalism because it seems like the opposite of engineering. It’s not. We’re information engineers. And I’ve never met an engineer who doesn’t crunch numbers.
Equations, fraction bars and spreadsheets are in my future. Big Brother will have to rethink his propaganda after I take my courses in computer-assisted reporting and programming.
Photo courtesy of Flickr user Dottie Mae