Why Journalism Students Need a Baseline Understanding of Coding

    by Aaron Chimbel
    January 26, 2015
    Photo by Michael Himbeault on Flickr and used here with Creative Commons license.

    At most universities, students are required to take English composition courses, and at many others speech and/or foreign language classes are also required. Yet in the debate about teaching code in journalism programs, code is often reduced to a shiny toy.

    If we value clear writing and the ability to communicate clearly with a wide variety of people, we should value teaching our students the basics of computer languages and digital communications. These skills will only be more important going forward, and more importantly code, a broad term encompassing several computing languages, is the future of digital and global communication. If we don’t expose our students to this — students we want to lead the next generation of journalism and communication — we are doing them a disservice.

    "What is important is for students who don't become programmers — and most won't — is for them to be able understand how information can be gathered and presented using code and how to use it for journalism."

    In fact, it would be smart for universities to add a general coding class to the core curriculum required of students in all fields. For journalism and mass communication programs, it’s essential.

    Photo by Lord James and used here with Creative Commons license.

    Photo by Lord James and used here with Creative Commons license.

    Debate Often Too Simplistic

    This discussion requires a more nuanced approach.

    The debate about coding for journalists often goes awry. Sometimes, like in 2013’s lightning rod post by The Atlantic’s Olga Khazan in which she said learning to code would not help aspiring reporters, the actual scope of what many code-proponents support is lost. The goal is not, and should not be, to make every student an expert programmer.


    What is important is to expose all students to the basics of coding and to give them a baseline of understanding this language, the language of the future.

    In other words, for journalism students, just a single course is important for all majors, and the opportunity to go in greater depth and learn more languages should be an option.

    One required course. Depending on what is included in the class — and what other courses are also required — the necessary foundational could be accomplished in a one- or two-hour class, instead of the traditional three-hour class for many programs. Again, the idea is not to make every student an expert in this aspect of journalism and presenting information, but to give them a taste and understanding of code.

    To think of it in another way, compare it to an introductory broadcast course that many programs require of all majors. The expectation at the end of the course is not that all students are then ready to go work at TV and radio stations. It’s to give all students a broad understanding of a key aspect of journalism and to prepare them for more specialized courses later. Some may take advanced broadcast reporting and producing classes, and some may not. But they will have all been exposed to that specialty, and hopefully have an appreciation for broadcast journalism and be able to identify when video is a good storytelling form to use.

    Code is an important way to convey information, as is video. Most journalism programs have curriculums that give some broad principles and skills and then allow students to specialize as they advance. Coding is simply an additional one.

    In addition to broadcast, think of photojournalism, design and computer-assisted reporting. Most of us probably hope all of our students have at least a basic understanding of several, if not all, of those to be competent journalists, as was shown in a recent Poynter survey.

    The nice thing about teaching code is that there are lots of free online resources, like code.org and Codecademy — and Cindy Royal’s codeactually.com designed specifically for journalists — which allow for new teaching methods and less classroom time dedicated to these skills.

    What is important is for students who don’t become programmers — and most won’t — to be able understand how information can be gathered and presented using code and how to use it for journalism, even if they aren’t the ones actually building the project. Another comparison: someone who can communicate in Spanish, but who won’t be writing a novel in it. We need to produce students who can communicate about what they want code to do. To do that, they have to understand what it can do.

    Photo by Marjan Krebelj and used here with Creative Commons license.

    Photo by Marjan Krebelj and used here with Creative Commons license.

    Take Code Beyond J-Schools

    Of course, the implications go beyond journalism. This is where journalism programs can become leaders on campus. By taking hold of this type of communication, journalism schools have the opportunity to offer an important class for all students at colleges and universities, something that would fit nicely in a digital media or media literacy course that could generate many credit hours (which is how many universities allocate resources) for journalism programs, and potentially more resources because of that.

    Journalism programs can take the lead and collaborate with other communication, computer science and engineering departments to not only improve journalism and journalism students’ understanding of digital technology, but to help educate all college students. If we don’t, other departments, like those listed above, will.

    Teaching students about code should be part of a broad liberal arts education. We don’t compare learning a language to skills because we know you learn a lot about thinking and culture from learning a new language.

    Code is about more than just a shiny new thing; it’s about a better understanding of our world and producing better communication and journalism.

    Aaron Chimbel is an assistant professor of professional practice in the School of Journalism at TCU’s Bob Schieffer College of Communication. Before returning to TCU in 2009, Chimbel worked at WFAA-TV in Dallas, where he won five Emmy Awards and a national Edward R. Murrow Award. Follow him on Twitter at @aaronchimbel.

    Tagged: aaron chimbell coding computer curriculum language poynter
    • jeffreydvorkin

      Nice idea. Unfortunately, teaching journalism students how to code only allows media organizations to continue to downsize, reduces journalistic contextualization and makes reporters poorer practitioners of what they should be doing.

      • I’m sure something quite similar was said of reporters having to learn to use typewriters.

      • I don’t follow how one leads to the other.

    • Aaron Chimbel

      Jeffrey – How so?

    • katzgrau

      I think one small step that can help make journalists more comfortable with code might be to avoid using the black/green 45 degree slanted pictures of highly condensed source code (the quality of which is actually quite awful, if you’re a developer and can read it).

      It makes coding look very mystical and disenchanting when it’s actually logical and straightforward to do.

    • Nice thought, but we’ll continue to happily employ journalists who don’t know how to code and developers who don’t know how to cover news.

    • James McGilvray

      Can you verify that postsecondary schools do not already to this? I know some of the methods courses at the University of Washington include coding as part of the course (I know, I took one) – precisely to emphasize the role coders and other IT staff play in the propagation of information through mediated devices.
      The methods courses taught focus on research skills, but also on how to critically think about the production of media and who and what is involved.

    • I’ve been a coder. There isn’t one thing I learned in all those years of writing code that has made me a better online journalist.

      Yes, my web development background has helped tremendously in building and running my business (but a lot of skills gained over the years contribute, especially sales, so coding is hardly essential here even), but as far as making me a better journalist? Zero. Nada. Zilch.

      In my print days, I won quite a few regional journalism awards, so I think I was pretty good, but I couldn’t have run the press. My knowledge of how ink got onto paper was facile at best. Why did I need to know how to operate the machinery?

      My knowledge of code hasn’t helped me ask better questions, write a better sentence or take a better photo.

      What drives audience to a news site is the journalism, not the coding. Journalists should work every day at their craft, no matter their experience level or how comfortable they feel with their skills — read great journalism, study great photojournalist, read up on the art and craft of interviews, reporting and writing. Leave the coding to others.

      There may be skills to learn related to making sure your work is seen online, but none of that need involve code.

      • DaveLaFontaine

        Not sure if I agree with the last graf, Howard. When you’re leading a team that includes coders, and what they do is just “dark territory” to you, when you’re launching a new project and they come to you and say, “Well, we can do that, but it will take 6 weeks…” or conversely, they make promises like “Oh yeah, we can knock that off in an afternoon…”

        … if you don’t at least have a basic knowledge of code & what is possible, how would you be able to figure out if they’re under/overestimating the effort required? Answer: you would have to just blindly trust. Which could result in either being massively overcharged for a simple task — or expecting a project to get launched that week that instead takes months, and leaves you looking like a jackass.

        I speak from sad experience here.

        Broadcast journalists tend to have a better understanding of this than print journos. They had to deal with complex tech to get stories to the network feed from the field. They weren’t expected to be broadcast engineers, staring at oscilloscopes and aligning dishes to satellites … but they had to at least understand the issues.

        Whether we like it or not, HTML/CSS/jQuery/PHP are now part of our workflows. Knowing their limitations isn’t the same as bolting plates onto an offset press. It’s knowing that you can’t crank out a 3million-page press run in a 1/2 hour. Or bother firing up the huge presses to get a couple of brochures.

        Do these analogies help?

      • I’d have to disagree with you. Knowledge of code has broadened the possibilities of my journalism immensely.

        I can scrape thousands of records in a government database that would be too long and tedious to do by hand.

        I can write a script to transform messy data into something usable.

        I can make an interactive map that’s far more engaging than conveying the same information through text.

        Code is as useful as the story idea you have for it. And for mine (and many other journo-geeks) it’s invaluable.

    • wr4ith0

      I don’t know about journalism specifically, but it’s rather entertaining that programmed devices have infiltrated every aspect of our lives and coding has yet to be accepted along with the 3 “r”s of reading, writing and arithmetic. The sheer amount of power the knowledge grants in the modern world is dumbfounding.

      Consider the fact that pretty much everyone has a cell phone (dumb or smart), and usually a tablet or pc, in addition to less obvious things like car computers, microwaves and the fact pretty much any electrical device can be “hacked” to modify it’s functions. Knowing how to code is the first step in empowering yourself to understand and change the world around you in a huge number of ways.

      And for the record I’m speaking as the editor of a small town paper with a minor in computer science.

      • Aaron Chimbel

        Great points! Thanks for sharing.

    • jaydg

      There’s been a proliferation of “learn to program” websites in the last few years and it seems every day I read another “Why dog walkers should learn to code” type article. This is rubbish! If my doctor says I need an operation, I don’t run out and get a medical degree to make sure he knows what he’s talking about. I get second opinions, ask questions about why it’s necessary. If a journalist wants to learn to code, then by all means learn it. Learn it because its of genuine interest to you. I love it and welcome you. But it seems a lot of journalism now is simply a bought and paid for marketing engine for the latest blossoming industry such as today’s “learn to code” fad.

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