NICAR 2017 Reflection

NICAR – National Institute of Computer-Assisted Reporting conference is a program run by the the IRE, Investigative Reporters and Editors, through the Missouri School of Journalism.

As newspapers go under and cries of “FAKE NEWS” diminish the integrity of the media, there are a number of powerfully-burning questions pending for the journalism industry. The 21st century has left the fourth estate challenged with fighting peoples’ shrinking attention spans and tendencies to either mistrust or overstep honest efforts by journalists, though many strive to be free of bias and understand the ideology and responsibility behind being a member of the news media. I’ve had too many fearful thoughts about the future of my career in the past month, until delving deeper into the data journalism world at the National Institute for Computer-Assisted Reporting conference in Jacksonville last weekend.

I observed and learned the strategies of data teams at influential publications like the Washington Post, New York Times, Texas Tribune, and Atlanta Journal-Constitution. 

Dan Keating (left) and Jeremy Singer-Vine (right) of the Washington Post and Buzzfeed News data teams led one of my favorite sessions about “unsung” datasets and databases, discussing ways to uncover new or unseen sources of public information.

I spoke with members of investigative organizations who do much of the digging into tomorrow’s next government controversy. I discovered that the blurred overlap of what we should and should not believe out of the news media is sharpening as journalists learn new ways to make information more and more accessible. They engage in endless fights for government transparency through the Freedom of Information act; WaPo data editor Steven Rich has literally filed the same FOIA request 1,033 times, he shared in his lightning talk, each time hoping the police department will give him more. A researcher at Fusion GPS (Global Research, Political Analysis, Strategic Insight), an investigative organization involved with finding ties between Russia and Trump administration officials, does not have social media in order to keep a low profile. At NICAR, I was able to unquestionably see an advanced wave of journalism, full of innovative and inspired thought. I’ve always been told by my professors that the news media is not dying, it’s changing, but I think “adapting” is a better way to put it. We’re discovering ways to take spreadsheets upon megabytes of data and find stories and build narratives out of institutional examination, all while creating gorgeous and interactive ways online for audiences to visualize data. In data journalism lie the solutions to multiple issues facing the news industry; traditional print alone (of any kind) cannot thrive in the age of Internet, and journalists have figured out what can.

One of the conference lightning talks – short, 5-minute topic presentations – showed the development of NICAR since its inaugural year in 1993.

NICAR is jump-starting the crucial next step for journalism education: data journalism concentrations and courses at universities. Not even the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern has established an undergraduate data track, I learned while talking to senior from the school, which was ranked as one of the top 20 journalism schools in the country. News organizations do not want to hire reporters without data skillsets, much of the time expecting them to know how to code their own websites and build meaningful information graphics by the time they leave college. A data track at Temple would push the School of Media and Communication far beyond many other undergraduate journalism programs, adapting students to an internet- and information-centric media environment that is our industry’s reality. Data journalists will have the greatest impact on the media community, moving us back to purely fact-based practices from reporters who dedicate themselves to the public and take pride in truthfulness, even if their work is behind the scenes.

Though I’m only in my second year of college, I have a good image of my future because of this opportunity to understand the direction of the journalism industry, which is undoubtedly ascending. I am immensely grateful to have a professor like Jillian Bauer, who is always looking for ways to help students adapt to journalism’s changing methods. As for the “war” between the Trump administration and the news media, I’m confident in journalists’ secret weapon, data, the purest form of fact.

Ironically enough, there was a pro-Trump rally at the Jacksonville Landing, right next door to NICAR. My classmate Anh and I were on our way to lunch with a Philly-based digital mapping organization when we heard the rally and decided to observe. Click on the photo to hear a local government official tell supporters not to listen to the “slipstream media.”


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