The Interdisciplinary Master of Arts degree in data journalism proposed here describes a course of study that will prepare the student for work in data journalism, a specialty within the field of journalism that has flourished in the past five years. Websites like ProPublica, data scientists like Nate Silver, until recently with the New York Times, and data desks at media outlets from the venerable Washington Post to the upstart Texas Tribune to our own Boise State Public Radio demonstrate the popularity and usefulness of incorporating stronger data collection, analysis and presentation skills for journalism. Data journalism provides for an increased watchdog function of the popular press, leads to more rigorous storytelling backed by data, fits well with the the online news ecosystem and increases collaborations between scholarship and popular journalism. And the open data movement—a trend of providing large data sets to the public, along with analysis tools—while most vibrant in certain journalism circles, extends to government, university and even the private sectors.
I propose a course of study at Boise State that leans on both the practice of data science, considered broadly, and the theory behind popular media, especially online media. Data considered broadly includes traditional sources of data—collected and observed data and widely available government data sources—as well as wider conceptions of data including text analysis, web scraping, geographic data, social media data and API (application programming interface) analysis. Courses in geographic information systems, statistics and survey methods will provide a background in the limits and uses of data and data analysis tools (GIS, statistical packages,etc.) A graphic design course and computer science course (or independent study) in best practices for serving and presenting data online (data curation) will round out the skills necessary for presenting findings to the public in attractive and useful ways.
A second track of study in communication theory and nonfiction writing will round out the storytelling skills that represent the other side of data journalism. Finding and telling stories based on number crunching is essential to presenting data to the public. I have 13 years experience in daily and weekly journalism and propose a few courses in media theory to ground my experience in contemporary research on rapid changes in journalism, particularly the factors associated with the massive shift to online journalism.
Boise State does not currently offer an MA in journalism and the MA in communication strays significantly from my particular interest in data journalism. No current graduate program at Boise State fits my needs directly, but the interdisciplinary MA allows for a custom program, pulling relevant courses from several Boise State Departments. In fact, only a handful of journalism programs across the country now offer tracks in data journalism. Columbia University now offers a dual degree in journalism and computer science, for example, and many journalism schools are developing courses in programming and data science or specializations in data visualization and curation. By combining the offerings in public policy, community planning, communication, computer science and English at Boise State, we can approximate such a course of study and aid Boise State in further developing its journalism programs. Additionally, the combination of qualitative and quantitative methods that will constitute my thesis, will constitute a true implementation of interdisciplinarity.
Finally, my position as editor of The Blue Review, an online journal of popular scholarship, published by Boise State’s College of Social Sciences and Public Affairs, serves as a venue for many of the concepts covered by this proposal. The Blue Review will continue to serve as a lab for data journalism, marrying scholarship and reportage, serving open data to the public and providing popularly written analysis and description of research findings.
This proposed Interdisciplinary MA in Data Journalism represents a cutting-edge program, at the forefront of the national and international trend of bringing data to the masses. A thesis, still in the development stage, promises to present new findings on the marriage of journalism and scholarship in the realm of both information provision and the financial models supporting journalism, a topic with global ramifications.
The proposed courses represent a complete program in data journalism with a clear educational and career outcome.
The following courses constitute my proposal for a master’s degree in data journalism at Boise State (updated 3/2016):