Say a highly-placed source has a mountain of incriminating data they want to make public. Who are they going to send it to? Judging by the last few years — think Glenn Greenwald or Bastian Obermayer — a journalist they can contact discreetly, with the expertise to sort through reams of digital information.
That's one of the reasons why Columbia Journalism School is launching a new master of science degree in data journalism, the school's fourth degree, aimed at students who want "practical, hands-on training essential to producing deeply reported data-driven stories."
"Not everyone's going to get the Panama Papers," said Giannina Segnini, data journalism program director at Columbia Journalism School. "But if they did, they would be able, from the technical side and the judgment side, to handle bulk data with this."
The degree doesn't come cheap. Unlike the school's other degree programs (save for a specialization in documentary filmmaking), the master of science in data journalism includes a third semester for learning the fundamentals in computational data and reporting. This extra semester puts tuition at "just under $100,000," said Steve Coll, the dean of the graduate school of journalism at Columbia University.
But it's worth it, he said, because students with an outside-in appreciation of data are in-demand at news organizations.
"You would be a highly literate candidate to participate in the modern newsroom, where you have technologists working alongside journalists to create new engagement with the audience in the digital age," Coll said. "So the idea is, you could take these skills and be a world-beating investigative reporter in this era of big data, or you could equally apply your journalism vision to the newsroom of the future."
There is some relief for cash-strapped applicants, however. Columbia Journalism school has already raised or allocated more than $500,000 to support the program, and students are encouraged to submit their scholarship applications before the Feb. 1 deadline, said Chantal De Soto, a spokesperson for Columbia Journalism School.
But is $100,000 really realistic for journalism students who are graduating into a shrinking industry where the median pay is $38,870 per year? Coll says yes.
"Careers grow, and salaries grow over time," he said. "It's a great time to be a young journalist who's skilled in multimedia and data journalism. There's an enormous amount of demand."
Data reporting is "one of the hot areas" in journalism, and schools are trying to meet that demand by integrating it into their curricula, said John Temple, the director of the Investigative Reporting Program at the University of California, Berkeley.
"It potentially opens the field for a different type of student, and there's an opportunity to do work today that we couldn't do previously," Temple said. "But you have to be trained to do it — and training at a journalism school for this kind of thing is really valuable."
Students who complete the degree will be able to do the following, according to Columbia University:
- Collect and clean datasets from different jurisdictions across the world
- Analyze data in its context to find and report on relevant journalistic stories
- Scrape the web to collect and analyze data
- Use visualization tools and mapping
- Apply algorithms to access capabilities and biases in data
- Write stories derived from datasets
And, said Segnini, they'll be prepared for a journalism industry where teams of technologists and data crunchers team up to tell sophisticated stories that can feel inscrutable at first glance.
"So we're aiming to prepare students for these unusual events — and the small tasks that require journalism judgment and technical skills," she said. "It's really about contemplating all these real cases that the journalistic world is facing right now."
Correction: A previous version of this story said Columbia Journalism School's new data degree was its only three-semester program. In fact, its documentary specialty also takes three semesters to complete (H/T Karen K. Ho).