Columbia University Announces New, $100,000 Data Journalism Program as Industry Embraces Data

One of the nation’s premiere journalism schools, Columbia University,  just announced the creation of a new Master of Science in Data Journalism degree.  The degree can be earned in a 12-month, three-semester program, for an estimated cost of $106,000, according to the university.

In a press release announcing the new degree, Dean Steve Coll said, “For journalists to carry out their function as watchdogs on power, storytellers and sifters of the truth, they increasingly must understand how to interrogate data and computer code.”

Coll’s words bring to mind some of the biggest stories from recent years, including the Panama Papers, Hillary Clinton’s leaked emails and the Edward Snowden leaks.  

While Attorney General Jeff Sessions said that he wants to crack down on leaks coming from the White House, data leaks do not seem to be disappearing from the public eye anytime soon.  This June, voter files from Republican data firm Deep Root Analytics were accidentally leaked online.  Data leaks are becoming increasingly commonplace; media giant HBO was the victim of a hack just this week.

Few disagree with Columbia Journalism School’s conclusion that, “Journalists who understand data and computation will be able to do their jobs more effectively in a world ever more reliant on complicated streams of information.” However, some journalists took to Twitter to criticize the program’s price tag.

Poynter’s Benjamin Mullin, in his article about the new degree, asked the relevant question: “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?”

Derek Willis, a data journalist for ProPublica, seemed to defend the program’s price tag in a series of tweets. While he acknowledged that there could be cheaper and more efficient routes, he said thatjournalism education should be producing more specialists (subject or skill) than generalists.”

“How we teach and value data journalism concerns the entire industry and journalism education,” said Willis in an interview with MediaFile.

Data journalism degrees are a new phenomenon in the United States. Only a few schools have graduate programs that incorporate data and journalism Stanford University’s Graduate Degree in Journalism also focuses on data, and the UC Berkeley New Media Program has a significant data component.

In Europe, these programs are also relatively new.  King Juan Carlos University in Madrid started its Data Journalism program back in 2012. Cardiff University, as well as several other United Kingdom schools, offer programs in data journalism.

Despite this progress, the 2017 Global Data Journalism survey found that “Most data journalists have a formal education in communication and journalism. A significantly smaller number have university level education in data and computer related disciplines.”

Whether it be investigative data journalism like the Panama Papers reporting, political data journalism like the work that FiveThirtyEight and The Upshot put out during the 2016 presidential campaign, or even reporting on data leaks data journalism has become a mainstay in newsrooms across the board.  

Back in 2015, Columbia Journalism School’s Emily Bell was featured on a panel at the Paley Center for Media titled “The Next Big Thing in Journalism: Follow the Data.” At the event, she said: “We might continue to be great school for writers but, unless we put data with that, we will not be a very great school for very long.”

As data becomes an increasingly integral part of both everyday life and journalism, it may become an expectation that journalists have a background working with data. So while it may be too early to evaluate Columbia’s new degree and its cost, programs that specialize in data journalism may become more common–and perhaps cheaper–as the news industry shifts towards a data-first mindset.

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