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Nieman Journalism Lab
Pushing to the future of journalism — A project of the Nieman Foundation at Harvard

Sure, journalists need to know digital tools, but they really need to know how to do digital research

Journalism schools need to take better advantage of the rest of their universities, teaching students to engage with scholarship.

Editor’s Note: It’s the start of the school year, which means students are returning to journalism programs around the country. As the media industry continues to evolve, how well is new talent being trained, and how well are schools preparing them for the real world?

We asked an array of people — hiring editors, recent graduates, professors, technologists, deans — to evaluate the job j-schools are doing and to offer ideas for how they might improve. Here’s John Wihbey, managing editor of the Shorenstein Center research portal Journalist’s Resource, argues that journalism schools need to do a better job of training journalists to research and go deeper into their subjects.

Anyone who’s been to j-school remembers the initial jitters — and the bundle of nerves — that came with heading out on assignments and to beats unknown in those dizzying first months.

Journalism schools have generally been good at steadying those nerves, giving students the confidence to explore new neighborhoods and challenging issues, and to ask tough questions. Throw in some sharpened writing skills and storytelling techniques, and we walked out with that traditional toolkit ready to go in the old media world.

But in a wired age, where knowledge on all topics is accumulating and proliferating, a new kind of fear should be persistent for journalists: Not knowing what you’re talking about. Or put more practically, not doing your research. There is little excuse these days for being uninformed and caught unaware. Expectations are being raised all around us.

“Looming in the background is this issue of rising knowledge, even as schools struggle to figure out how to embed deeper research content into their classrooms.”

Scholar-bloggers (and a legion of wonky twittizens) are now out in force. Statistics and data can be quickly located and brought to bear on most topics. Government agencies are creating research-oriented apps and APIs and uploading data sets fairly regularly. Unlike a decade ago — when much of the world’s deepest knowledge sat on dusty library shelves — targeted search engines and databases such as Google Scholar, Microsoft Academic Search, PubMed, and the Social Science Research Network now make access to scholarship easy. One-fifth of all scholarship is “open access” (translation: no paywalls) and that trend is accelerating, according to the Peter Suber, director of Harvard’s Open Access Project.

There’s peril in not capitalizing on this flood of knowledge.

Any smart group of readers will call you out on ignorance in the comment thread (or just deploy the #clueless hashtag) and then float away forever to other sites. At stake for journalists is this: having enough credibility with one’s audience and being competent enough to convene readers/viewers who now have an overabundance of choices and alternatives. Otherwise, journalism loses its hard-won capacity to focus attention and define the contours of the public interest. In an overcrowded marketplace, it’s ultimately about turning out the highest-value work on a given news topic.

With the democratization of knowledge accelerating online, the bar is higher for young journalists. Outlets like The New York Times, The Atlantic, and others, with their suites of specialized blogs, are already reflecting as much.

At the same time, the great anxiety for many journalism schools — and their central debate — is about how to merge traditional reporting skills with new tech tools and modes of delivery. Looming in the background is this issue of rising knowledge, even as schools struggle to figure out how to embed deeper research content into their classrooms.

In our networked, crowdsourced media environment, the value of basic “reporting” on events and issues is diminished. Deep context and added-value knowledge around news, however, will remain scarce commodities.
At the AEJMC annual meeting in Chicago last month, many educators were indeed talking about a new imperative to use more scholarship within curricula.

But how?

The good news is that innovation, both in terms of tech tools and research capacity, can flourish in j-schools.
The intellectual component — though complex at one level, involving fluency with numbers and with some academic concepts (think correlation) — can be broken down into a single mantra: make a “research review” a core habit for students.

Even at the 200- or 300-level of undergraduate courses, students can get accustomed to using academic sites such as Google Scholar, survey-oriented sites such as the Pew Research Center, and paid repositories like Academic Search Premier. JSTOR is another example.

Reporting on vacant lots and redevelopment? You might want to know about this study. Exploring dynamics of overbearing parents in schools? This one might be useful. Backgrounding a piece on tax breaks for businesses? Take a look here. A new baseball stadium? Catch this. A smart search through key databases can yield a wealth of such information on deadline, which can then be leveraged for coverage of news events.

Journalism educators should press students to mine such knowledge and be as aggressive in its pursuit online as they are of leads in the real world.

This is not to suggest there is always some perfect study or dataset to inform every one-off local story. Establishing the habit is the thing.

The same analytical skills embedded in the research review habit will make for better questions, more rigorous scrutiny of assumptions, higher-level journalism. Scholars perform a literature review as they approach questions; most topics have been studied for decades. Why neglect all of that accumulated knowledge? Even within difficult disciplines, journalists can obtain a reasonable fluency — enough to be well informed, know the deeper debates within issues, and ask more penetrating questions when engaging with experts (and avoid all of those blind phone calls for quotes).

For journalism schools, this means not segregating “research skills” in a single seminar. It means every j-school instructor emphasizing sophisticated web search skills, some knowledge of statistical concepts, a familiarity with research databases, and fostering the strong desire for a non-anecdotal, contextual understanding of things.

For the many brilliant career journalists who are now working in academia, this is not that heavy a lift. But it requires rebalancing. It’s all a matter of reorienting j-school time and energy. And it means turning back toward the wealth of resources within universities — the experts in economics, sociology, political science, and many other departments — while teaching students to engage with those disciplines in a distinctively journalistic way.

How many journalism classes have ever, for instance, read an original academic paper from a scholar on campus and then had a vigorous conversation with that scholar? (The News21 initiatives have pioneered some of this cross-disciplinary work.)

Journalism education should move a little closer to the academic research world, using its resources to elevate and distinguish the reporting profession again in our new, more competitive information marketplace. Journalist’s Resource — from Harvard Kennedy School’s Shorenstein Center, where I work — is but one player in an emerging movement along these lines that comes out of the Carnegie-Knight Initiative on the Future of Journalism Education. We hope it grows. Across the nation’s journalism schools, we’re seeing huge steps in this direction already.

All this comes at a crucial moment, when the profession’s momentum can be recaptured. Imagine journalism that is as smart as the giant pool of available knowledge now online. Then imagine it brought to bear through new, more-personalized social streams and rendered through more engaging platforms and applications.

If educators rise to the challenge of forging that future, journalism schools will have little to fear in the coming decades.

Photo by David Michael Morris used under a Creative Commons license.

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  • John Bergin

    You make a worthy point. There is a lot of focus on the need for emerging journalists to be technically literate – to know the digital tools of the trade to create and share a narrative – but this shouldn’t be at the expense of building critical thinking skills.

  • Bbm_miller

    I think there has been too much emphasis on the technical. In all types of publishing the tech is always changing and has been for years, decades, centuries. And it is true that tech now is part of the delivery. However I think you can still be just as good a journalist whether you study journalism or any other subject. Not all top journalists study journalism. Some come to it through topics of interest and study and/or interest in writing and communicating. I think there is a place for J education but I think both research and strong knowledge of a subject or ability to properly research a subject are what ultimately delivers “good” news.

  • Wihbey

    Thanks, John and Bbm_miller, for the feedback. I don’t want to neglect the fact that tech innovation and entrepreneurship all need to happen in a big way in j-schools. But we can’t think of these problems divorced from evolving dynamics affecting actual content. It’s the combination of innovation in delivery and deeper expertise that will make journalism worth paying for in the Internet era, in my view.

  • StanleyKrauter

    Most voters don’t take notes when they read a newspaper or listen to a news broadcast. 
    But reporters don’t care about stupidity by voters.  Their job is to report the news.  They are not responsible for educating the public.  So they are never going to communicate like a teacher would by publishing an annual one week review of events and conditions.  Which could be repackaged as a print on demand paperback book so voters could buy an annual photographic memory. 
    And the Niemand Foundation doesn’t care that our country is being corrupted by lobbyists and special interest groups with money for campaign contributions (or for bribes).  The Nieman Foundation is a member of a special interest group of foundations that have special privileges that are written into our tax laws.  So it is never going to say that reporters should communicate like a teacher because that would force every politician to line up in a circular firing squad and shoot at the lobbyists and special interest groups standing behind another politician.  The Nieman Foundation cares more about itself than it cares about its country. 
    But the Nieman Foundation will be happy to publish irrelevant articles about potential subsides for the news media. 

  • Peculiarblend

     This is one of the main reasons why I love reading articles on Nieman Journalism Lab. Thank you very much indeed.