Computer-Assisted Reporting and the Journalism Curriculum

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Five years ago J. T. Johnson, in his article "The Unconscious Fraud of Journalism Education" (Quill, June 1992), criticized journalism schools for failing to teach students the basics of computer skills. Today, most schools are trying to close that gap, but many are finding it a daunting task. Purchasing appropriate hardware and software, retraining faculty and adapting curricula to teach students the electronic skills they need to market themselves in the 21 st century can be difficult and discouraging.

The problem has many dimensions, but a central issue is a common misconception among both journalists and journalism educators of the role computers are coming to play in the modern newsroom. The early stories that utilized computer-assisted journalism were based on statistical analysis of large databanks. The projects took months, required at least one computer "wizard," and often had the sophistication of advanced social science. But most reporters and many journalism educators lack either the statistical training or computer expertise to create and execute such projects, which is why advanced computerassisted reporting education has spread little beyond the few "hot spots" established by the handful of computer gurus willing to leave daily journalism to teach.

Instead, many people in the industry are beginning to see that there are a host of basic, transferable computer skills average reporters and editors should have that lie far below the advanced data analysis of the big stories, and these skills can make a big difference for graduates in the job market. These skills are not that difficult to teach, but a successful adaptation of curricula depends on integrating the skills into regular journalism skills courses, such as reporting and editing, and providing a support system of training and curriculum development for teachers.

At American University in Washington, D.C., the journalism faculty made az commitment five years ago that we would adapt our skills curriculum to include computer reporting techniques at every level. The transition hasn't been easy; but, now we are graduating students as familiar with online census data as they are with the hallways of Congress. Indeed, in my last upper-level course, the undergraduates-who had come through three years of our enhanced skills curriculum-were far better prepared for the in-depth reporting projects than our older graduate students. I knew then that we were doing something right.

But such a program won't materialize out of thin air, or even out of the hard work of a few individuals. For American University it depended on several critical steps. First, the faculty debated and finally reached a consensus that we were all committed to adapting the skills curriculum to include computer reporting. Reaching consensus was important for several reasons.

We agreed that all journalism students needed to learn these skills, not just those willing to sign up for a high-level elective. At the same time, the skills needed to build gradually throughout the skills sequence, with reinforcement in each course, so that by the time students reached advanced reporting they had a full toolbox of skills for more challenging assignments. It was also important to standardize which skills would be taught at each level, so teachers and students knew what to expect from the curriculum. We also were worried about accrediting restrictions on the number of required skills courses for our majors, and avoided such problems by integrating the skills into existing courses instead of creating new ones.

Building political support in the department for such fundamental curriculum reform can be a challenge. Some faculty may never have worked as professional journalists, and even those who left the newsroom little more than five to 10 years ago have missed much of the computer revolution. They may be skeptical of the need to teach these skills and worried about how they can retrain themselves or redevelop curriculum. …