As the skills needed to work in digital journalism continue to develop, coding remains a valuable asset for news organisations looking to enhance their reporting.
But what are the benefits of mastering data cleaning and the essential elements of web or app development, and do reporters need to know how to do any of it, or can this just be left to the mass of programmers that have entered newsrooms over the last few years?
“It’s been a very big shift over the last couple of years,” said Karrie Kehoe, a freelance journalist who works on the data team at The Times and The Sunday Times.
Data journalists employed by the publisher make up what they call the ‘computational investigative team'.
“I don’t write very much at all, as I spend most of my time coding," Kehoe added.
"Years ago, there was so much focus on visualisation with data journalism, but we mine data to dig deeper and find exclusive stories, which I think is a necessity in the digital age where newspapers cannot break stories as fast as platforms like Twitter or Snapchat.”
Indeed, without coding skills, Kehoe would not have been able to break a recent story for The Sunday Times in Ireland, where she found the Irish Court of Appeal had examined 562 cases and overturned nearly half, after analysing data from its website.
She explained that her specialised team at The Times and The Sunday Times often uses coding skills to build tools to analyse and clean data sets, before working alongside journalists across multiple desks, from health to business, who find the "human stories" within the information.
"Not only does it allow us to sink our teeth into projects, but data journalism is an incredibly powerful tool to use as a way to challenge press releases from the government and corporations."
Every journalist should have basic numerical literacy skills and be able to pull down data sets for themselvesKarrie Kehoe, freelance journalist, The Times and The Sunday Times
Kehoe explained the ability to code not only enables journalists to expand their reporting – it also encourages them to produce alternative storytelling formats which engage audiences in different ways.
"Not only that, but it makes the communication process between us, the developers, and the journalists much easier because they understand the process of what we have to do and how long it might take to verify and clean the information.
"Every journalist should have basic numerical literacy skills and be able to pull down data sets for themselves."
So, how can we get these skills for ourselves?
"Journalists following a step by step course of study, with or without a teacher, can be functional in three to six weeks, able to set up a website and produce a basic interactive," she told Journalism.co.uk.
"It is like learning a language – it's a building process that you have to do every day."
There's no shortage of places to learn how to code, with many free tools and apps available to reporters online. McAdams recommended Atom for editing open-source text, GitHub for accessing collections of shared code available for use, JSFiddle to experiment and preview the outcome of your own code, and Stack Overflow to ask questions of experienced coders.
Erika Owens, program manager for Knight-Mozilla's OpenNews initiative, noted that before publishers start to panic and try to make all their journalists learn how to code, it is important for newsrooms to establish how these skills can best serve their interests.
“The attitude that journalists need to constantly catch up with all the technological information that they don’t have neglects the fact that reporters have a lot of knowledge and skills that are directly applicable to working in digital journalism,” Owens pointed out.
“It is important with any platform, piece of technology or skillset, to apply some journalistic scepticism and curiosity to the process of learning and evaluating technical tools.
“Shift the mindset from catching up to thinking about the areas of your work that could be improved by coding, and then work alongside experienced programmers to better serve your audiences overall.”
Looking for some inspiration? Check out this week's podcast, where we spoke to Anisah Osman Britton, who is one of the founders of 23 Code Street, a London-based coding school for women.
Free daily newsletter
- Tip: Check out these recommendations for collaborating on projects
- In the UK, data journalism and investigations are getting more local
- Tip: Open this data journalism advent calendar throughout December
- Tip: Check out these recommendations for improving your data visualisations
- 10 key principles for data-driven storytelling