Writing is one of the most varied fields in the modern workforce. The concept of a writer brings to mind a variety of images, from fiction writers sharing stories and trying to get published to cutting edge journalists breaking news to technical writers who develop expertise in complex subjects.
All of these writers have something in common: STEAM. Whether poet or publisher, artist or archivist, all use the concepts of science, math, engineering, and technology, even though their STEAM activities might look different than most other professionals. Here’s how modern writers use STEAM concepts to enhance their work.
Data Journalism is More Important Than Ever
STEAM concepts allow writers to do their jobs effectively and break stories that can make a difference in their communities.
The American Press Institute shared one example of data journalism helping writers take their stories deeper and discover new information. Steve Doig, now a journalism professor at the Cronkite School of Journalism at Arizona State University, was working at the Miami Herald when Hurricane Andrew hit in 1992. Back then, reporters often had to borrow computers from universities to do research and analyze data.
When it was reported that county inspectors were going house-to-house analyzing the storm damage, Doig decided to align their results with census data and the tax roll to look for patterns. He discovered that the newer the home, the more likely it was to get destroyed by the storm. Suddenly, the story wasn’t about the hurricane: It was about property inspectors forging passing reports and campaign finance donations from the construction industry.
Doig says this data was “the one true smoking gun of [his] career,” and he earned the 1993 Pulitzer Prize for Public Service, the Pulitzers’ highest award, as a result.
Doig provides just one example of what professional data journalists try to do every day. During Brazil’s 12th Congress of Investigative Journalism in 2017, Simon Rogers, data journalist and data editor at Google, emphasized how journalists can use data to break stories and present reliable information.
“Even in countries where it’s hard to get decent data, there are people exploring—finding something,” he said. “Every government in the world has data, even Afghanistan.”
Data Helps Writers Sort Fact From Fiction
Data is increasingly important in the modern era, when anyone with a smartphone can become a citizen journalist.
“Using data, the job of journalists shifts its main focus from being the first ones to report to being the ones telling us what a certain development might actually mean,” Mirko Lorenz, founder and CEO of visualization software company Datawrapper, says.
In addition to fact-checking reports and content shared on the web, reporters can use data and insight to provide context, history, and information on what people are seeing.
“Mass communication is a primary channel to inform the public, as well as forming public opinion for better or worse,” Bahareh Heravi, assistant professor at University College Dublin’s School of Information and Communication Studies says. “[Data journalism] has the potential to help us move away from fake news towards verifiable, reliable news rooted in facts. It allows us to move from opaque to transparent.”
Some people criticize the media for contextualizing information, saying journalists spend more time analyzing the news than reporting it. However, it is often this supplemental information that provides big picture clues of what is happening and why.
Science Journalism Balances Information with Entertainment
A great place to start a discussion on data and context in the writing industry is science journalism. Reporters in this field need to balance in-depth research and complex topics with catchy headlines and engaging posts. This isn’t easy, as it requires both scientific insight and creative thinking.
Last year, The American Council on Science and Health and RealClearScience created an infographic ranking roughly 50 news sites on the compelling nature of their science journalism and whether or not the reporting was accurate. The goal was to help people see that what’s compelling isn’t always true, and what is true isn’t always interesting or relevant.
Science writer Dr. Alex Berezow, the founder of RealClearScience, provided insight into this infographic, explaining why certain publications were ranked the way they were. “While some of their content [at Popular Science and Wired] is good, our biggest problem with them is that they are prone to wide-eyed speculation and clickbait rather than serious science news analysis,” he says. “Physics World has the opposite problem. It is very serious and well-reported, but the topic selection is esoteric and of interest to few people.”
The infographic caused a lot of controversy when it was published, with some publications defending their practices while others questioned the methodology of the information. Even the writers at Nature, which was the top-ranked science news site, questioned the graphic and its value. However, journalists admit that it highlights the complex relationship between science and media.
Scientists often scramble to prove the validity of reporting while journalists look for compelling stories. In today’s fast-paced world, some things slip through the cracks.
Not All Science Journalists Have Science Backgrounds
It’s not uncommon for a writer without an in-depth scientific background to enter the science journalism field.
Mariette DiChristina, editor-in-chief at Scientific American, tells the American Association for the Advancement of Science that many science journalists have at least a bachelor’s degree in a science-related field, and sometimes a master’s in science writing, but people enter the field from different backgrounds driven by a variety of interests.
“At the end of the day, however, we’re all—both scientist and journalist—seeking knowledge,” she says.
Tech Skills Help Journalists Stand Out
Along with a data analysis background and a specialized degree in the field of writing they plan to enter, many journalists are pressured to learn to code. Not only are they expected to learn programming, they also are required to understand basic marketing, videography, and business development concepts.
In an article for The Poynter Institute, Benjamin Mullin shared a report from the Tow-Knight Center for Entrepreneurial Journalism on the skills journalists need today and in the future. After interviewing 39 leaders at 31 news companies and scanning hundreds of job postings, the Tow-Knight Center reported that in addition to top-notch writing skills, the ideal journalist should have the abilities to code, design and edit video content, manage social media promotions, and work with teams on brand development.
Mullin says that it’s not realistic for a single journalist to learn all of those skills, much less master them, and the researchers agree. They say that media companies also recognize this and are actually looking to create teams, where everyone’s skill sets work together to create a super-newsroom.
Should Journalists Learn to Code?
While a laundry list of skills may not be required for journalists, what about learning to code? Is coding essential for the job or just a preferred add-on?
Even reporters who don’t use programming in their day-to-day lives can still benefit from understanding programming, journalist Hannah Sinclair writes. She signed up for a two-month coding school for journalists to learn how programming languages can improve her storytelling and workflow.
“The publishing mechanism of the future is the Internet, so why shouldn’t journalists know more about it?” she asks. “I liken it to understanding the basics of how the master control room functions in a television studio. My focus is still on the story, but I now have a greater appreciation of the medium in which it will be distributed.”
Data journalist Paul Bradshaw agrees. He explains that coding is publishing. It is creating platforms for discussion and tools for communication.
“If journalism was merely content creation we would not open up comment threads or host forums; we would not arrange Q&A discussions and editorial events,” he writes.
Programming gives journalists the tools to create the best story possible and host it in the best possible location. Hiring managers aren’t outlandish in asking for programming, social media, and video editing expertise. They simply want to form teams where groups of journalists can work together to deliver messages on targeted platforms.
Coding and Writing Require Similar Skills
There’s an added bonus for journalists who do invest in coding skills and learning basic programming languages: their writing is also likely to improve. Developer Bert Wagner at Hacker Noon says writing code is similar to writing a novel in multiple ways, and professionals who have both programming and writing experience can combine their skill sets to help them succeed. A few of these common features include:
- Writers develop characters with personal details, backstories, and motivators. Programmers develop customers with demographics, interests, needs, and desires.
- Both writers and programmers understand the importance of a rough first draft. What you create in the first round often looks nothing like the finished product.
- Writers and programmers will tell you to create every day. Their crafts require practice, and those who keep creating are more likely to find the work easier.
Wagner isn’t the only one to point out these similarities. Natasha Postolovski at The Footnotes shared her own personal story from writer to programmer. She always hated programming and assumed the math would be too complex for her. She worked as a fiction writer and journalist, and eventually started tinkering with code as she realized what she could do with it.
“Code was, for the most part, much more about clear expression and rigorous editing than about crafting complex algorithms of ones and zeroes,” she writes. “Programming felt a lot like writing, but unlike writing a story or article, I could now build things with words.”
If programming, video editing, or social sharing allows journalists to tell the best story possible to the most relevant audiences, then there’s no reason writers should shy away from these skills.
Coding Teaches Critical Thinking
Even students who don’t go into journalism can benefit from programming and writing skills. These tools allow them to be responsible media consumers, curators, and creators in today’s Twitter-driven world. In other words, they’ll be able to distinguish fake news from real, which is a real concern these days.
For example, researchers at Stanford’s Graduate School of Education asked middle, high school, and college students in 12 states to evaluate various media statements (articles, comments, and tweets). They collected more than 7,800 responses to understand the critical thinking of the next generation of media consumers.
The researchers were dismayed to find that many students lacked the ability to discern real accounts from fake ones, whether a story comes from a media outlet or news source, or whether the content was a paid ad. The students weren’t expected to provide in-depth analyses, as the researchers simply wanted to see if they could use basic levels of critical thinking in their media consumption.
Specific findings include:
- More than 80 percent of middle schoolers believed that ‘sponsored content’ was a real news story.
- More than 30 percent of students thought a fake Fox News account was more trustworthy than the real one.
- Most Stanford students couldn’t identify the difference between a mainstream and fringe source.
Programming teaches critical thinking and helps students learn to think before they write and share something online.
Coding is Weight-Training for the Brain
Along with critical thinking, there are multiple other skills that kids pick up when they learn programming that they can apply to writing and journalism fields, instructional technology coordinator Jennifer Williams, Ph.D. writes at We Are Teachers. Some of these skills are:
- Problem solving to look at issues from different ways and come up with solutions
- Processing skills to review information and highlight important details
- Determination to complete tasks and courage to take risks and fail
All of these skills will help future journalists’ abilities to think critically and identify fact from fiction.
“All human brains like challenges that are properly scaffolded,” Chris Carter writes at Edtech 4 Beginners. “We like solving puzzles. We actually like ruminating. Computational thinking and problem solving, not coding, get us there.”
Today, everyone is a writer and journalist. We share personal photos, add comments to news stories, and post updates on social media. Whether your child graduates to work at the Washington Post breaking political scandals or spends their day researching and reporting on various species of fungi, they will need STEAM skills to succeed.
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