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Sept. 17, 2012, 11:45 a.m.
Reporting & Production

Mindy McAdams: Don’t just teach skills, train young journalists to be lifelong learners

Journalism school students often choose the field because they like writing. So getting them to code requires more than instruction — it takes convincing.
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. Over the coming days, we’ll be sharing their thoughts with you. Here Mindy McAdams, journalism professor at the University of Florida, says that teaching code isn’t enough — you must teach students why code is worth struggling with.

After spending about five hours learning how to scrape a web page for data using Python, I had a small epiphany. First I thought: “Man, I’m so glad I’m working through how to do this, so I can boil it down to the essentials for my students.”

My next thought: “There’s something wrong with that idea.”

I’ve been teaching journalism students how to make things that work online for more than 10 years, so I’ve spent some time figuring out ways to introduce them to industry best practices for programming, animation, and web design. Most journalism students are not very eager to learn those things. And why not?

Most of them chose journalism because they like to write. Anything that involves HTML, CSS, code, or programming makes many of them almost shut down, shrink away, move toward the door. We have all kinds of challenges in journalism education, but this one is front and center, right now. It’s not just students’ avoidance of things perceived to be somehow math-related. It’s also:

  • Reluctance to spend time exploring something that doesn’t have an explicit or immediate payoff
  • Skepticism or negative attitude toward any task that’s not spelled out in detail
  • The tendency to give up and say “I can’t” or “I don’t know how”
  • Preoccupation with a process, such as writing, instead of with stories

This applies to storytelling as much as to technology. Any time a student says “You didn’t tell us we had to do that” in a conversation about a poor grade on a story, you’re hearing evidence of this challenge. The more students insist on explicit instructions, the further they are from independence.

Journalism doesn’t come with an instruction manual

The problem with my (or any teacher’s) spending 20 or 30 hours learning a set of tasks for doing, say, data journalism, and then distilling what I’ve learned into two or three hours of teaching, is this: My students still don’t know how to do what I did. Even if they get the same end result I got, they don’t know how to start from zero and get there. And for the next task, it’s the same.

I’ve been thinking about how to get the students to start at zero and figure out how to do something. The first thing they’ll need is an example. There are two types of good example:

  • One is inspirational, great, a pinnacle of the form. This inspiring example must make students feel admiration, but it mustn’t make them despair (“It’s too big, too long, the sources are inaccessible,” etc.).
  • The other type is a simpler example that can be imitated because it can be deconstructed. It’s a suitable model for beginners.

Journalism students often have very little experience with the kinds of end products they will be producing, so their instructors need to select, show, and discuss specific suitable examples of both types. Later, students should be able to search and find good examples on their own.

How will they learn how to deconstruct the simpler examples, take them apart and see what all the pieces do? In the case of programming or code, they need a set of definitions to help them recognize what the pieces are (variable names, if-thens, while loops) and how they are used. They need to understand the building blocks. Students need similar definitions for reporting: What is a source? How are sources found? What roles do sources play? If students continually turn in lackluster quotes, maybe they haven’t grasped the purpose of sources. If they can’t deconstruct simple code, maybe they don’t understand the syntax of a loop.

The unbearable necessity of grading

The ability to learn on your own and teach yourself new skills depends on your willingness to play, experiment, make mistakes, and stick with things that take much longer than you had expected. But the reality of American education in 2012 is that if the teacher is not going to grade an assignment, the student will not do it. Unless, of course, they must do it under the teacher’s nose, during class.

Some tasks can be adapted for in-class completion, but many cannot. I see a frustrating incompatibility between students performing repeated iterations of a task (play and experimentation) and teachers assigning a final grade to a finished product, which must be completed by a deadline. Deadlines are real in journalism work, but actual learning doesn’t always conform to a deadline.

Something I’m experimenting with this semester is refusing to give a grade (or ultimately giving zero points) for work that’s less than good. In other words, if A is “excellent” and B is “good,” then anything less than a B must be done over, or it earns a zero. So we still have deadlines, but in the world of journalism work, we can’t publish or broadcast or upload C work.

It takes a long time and a lot of practice to get good at doing journalism. Nobody brings this home like Ira Glass, talking about storytelling in the third of four videos on YouTube (here are the first, second and fourth videos too). We get into doing creative work, he says, “because we have good taste.” For a long time, while you are still learning: “Your taste is good enough that you can tell that what you’re making is kind of a disappointment to you.”

Glass continues: “A lot of people never get past that phase. A lot of people, at that point, they quit.”

One of the age-old frustrations for people who teach Reporting 101 classes is that so many students do not want to be that kind of journalist — they don’t want to cover local crime, court cases, school board meetings, city budgets. (And how many jobs like that are there today?) The students didn’t choose journalism because they wanted to be a reporter; they chose it because they like to write.

To hang in there — to produce data-driven journalism, or design a mobile app, or write a long-form profile story — students need to have both good taste and a desire to master something. What if they lack one of those? What if they lack both? At the root of all this talk about programming, apps, and so on, is the idea of story. But have our students seen the story in the data, in the graphic, in the app?

I was afraid when I started reading Miranda Mulligan’s article here at Nieman Lab that she had written what I wanted to write. She put an emphasis on learning code in j-school. I agree with everything she said. But before we can teach journalism students about code, we have to bring them to a place where they can appreciate what journalists use it for.

POSTED     Sept. 17, 2012, 11:45 a.m.
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