Taking a pause from his day job to look at the future of data journalism

Photo courtesy of the Nieman Foundation 

After spending much of the past decade reporting on politics and science in his home state of North Carolina, Tyler Dukes became concerned about a glaring gap in the skill sets being taught to the next generation of reporters in journalism schools. As an investigative reporter on the state politics team for the local television station WRAL in Raleigh, Dukes has focused on using data and public records to uncover and tell stories of the problems plaguing mental health care in state prisons and the implementation of protection orders for victims of domestic violence. Yet in his experience teaching at UNC-Chapel Hill’s journalism school and as a researcher at Duke University’s Reporters’ Lab, he saw that data journalism was being addressed in only the most superficial ways, if at all.

“Very few courses are offered,” Dukes said in an interview, speaking of journalism schools across the country, “and when they are, they are far outstripped by courses like how to make pretty graphs and how to do data visualization.  It is not data analysis first. It is not using data as  a source first.  It is not acquiring data through public records and things like that. So it skips this really important step, which is data literacy.”

Hoping to address this problem, Dukes and his wife moved to Cambridge in the fall where Dukes would spend an academic year as a Nieman Fellow at Harvard University studying best practices for college journalism programs and newsrooms looking to democratize data-driven reporting for underserved communities. Now more than half way through his fellowship, Dukes acknowledges he is far from discovering a solution to those challenges. Much of the fall semester was spent taking advantage of Harvard’s offerings to address gaps in his own knowledge in areas like statistics, machine learning and artificial intelligence.  These classes, he said, helped to both demystify certain concepts but also offer pedagogical lessons on how to teach things like statistics from a practical, applied perspective to policy makers or journalists who may have limited math backgrounds.

In his remaining months in Cambridge, Dukes plans to continue conversations he began in the fall with students and reporters about how best to move ahead with his idea of creating an extracurricular independent study resource about the various facets of data journalism. He says he envisions some kind of platform, perhaps recorded Google hangouts or Skype calls with experts, that students who do not feel served by their journalism schools could easily access.  While many similar online modules and resources for journalists exist in an ad hoc fashion, he says that dedicated organizations have had difficulties incorporating these models into universities and colleges.

“If we are pretending we are equipping them to be journalists in modern times they have to have basic data literacy,” Dukes said. “And if journalism school aren’t going to do it, someone is going to have to force their hand.”

In the meantime, Dukes and his fellow Niemans are also using their time in Cambridge to reflect on the deeper questions about their role in the journalism ecosystem that have emerged in the politically volatile past few months. He admits he is starting to feel the pull to return back to his newsroom which, despite widespread consternation about the future of local news, is still relatively robust.  While the overall economic climate for journalism is shaky and shifting quickly, Dukes thinks people are too quick to generalize about an industry that is hardly monolithic and varies widely based on platform and location. Though increased coverage and competition from other outlets would be welcome, Dukes has the luxury of returning to a healthy newsroom in a fairly well covered media market that is continuing to aggressively report on post-election dynamics in his absence.

Though he concedes a twinge of regret at not being in the thick of things, he says that “the impact of elections are felt for years…the story is not going away.” And at a moment in which the role of the press in covering politics is being hotly debated, there is a certain “perspective that comes from being forced not to do your job for several months. Hopefully it is going to make our work that much better when we get back.”