Event recap: Journalism Educator’s Symposium

On Wednesday, Sept. 21, 2016, the Tow Center for Digital Journalism at Columbia Journalism School hosted its inaugural Educator’s Symposium. The purpose of this event was to bring together journalism instructors and practitioners to share challenges and best practices for journalism education in today’s rapidly changing reporting and publishing environment.

Below is an overview of the day’s three primary sessions, each of which consisted of two lightning talks followed by group discussion. The three themes were selected from among those that participants selected through an open invitation to present.

Session 1: Data, design and visual journalism

Our first session featured two talks focused on how to keep data journalism courses both rigorous and engaging. In the first talk, Professor John Wihbey addressed why giving students “messy” data sets was important (even if might seem frustrating at first), while Professor Meredith Broussard shared key strategies for keeping long and sometimes complicated class sessions active and engaging.

1.1 Messy Datasets in the Classroom – John Wihbey / Northeastern

Session slides


Make it personal

Students can be uncritical of both data and tools when they are “too clean.” One way to help students really think about where data comes from and what it represents is to have them do data collection & deal with it by hand.

Example exercises:

  • Have students create a “data diary” by recording data about their lives for two weeks and using it as a source.
  • Students decided to track their personal curses, which forced them to think about how to organize data without using pre-gathered data. They were also limited to hand-drawn presentations.
  • Go around campus, observe people by demographics and come back to class and map that data.

Get in groups

The value of group work came up in both sessions, in part because it cuts down on the need for “tech support” for individual students. It can also make it easier to give feedback in large classes where, if time is tight, you can both get to everyone and help students prioritize by identifying three things that worked and three things that didn’t in a given project/presentation. Finally, group work is a great place to have students talk with one another about obstacles: It often feels easier to solve someone else’s reporting problem.

Discuss mistakes

While there are a lot of great examples of data journalism out there, there are some cautionary tales as well. Providing students with examples where things have gone wrong (or asking them to do the same) can highlight pitfalls of the practice. Also, having them reflect on their work to determine where they themselves have gone astray offers both important insight and an added learning opportunity.

Don’t forget the story

Unsurprisingly, a focus on story permeated our discussion. Data “cleaning” exercises shouldn’t be undertaken for their own sake, but always embedded in a reporting and story development process. This is another area where working with “messy” data aids the journalistic side of the learning process: Messy data is intriguing, and forces students to dig into the details and context in order to make sense of it. And since most real-world data is messy, it helps reinforce the fact that the kind of data we use in journalism is about real things that happen in the world, rather than a collection of abstract measurements. This can help students develop the emotional and narrative aspects of a data-driven story, driving attention to the all important question: “Why do I care?”

1. 2 Planning Interactive Tech Classes Where No One Falls Asleep – Meredith Broussard / NYU

Session slides

Tech-focused classes can be exciting for students eager to gain job skills, but often this means wading through long class sessions and lots of jargon. To keep students attention (and keep it on the right things) careful planning can keep things moving while still leaving room for spontaneity.

Have a plan

  • Share your syllabus: A well-developed plan for the overall course helps students plan their time and understand what they can expect week-to-week.
  • Even during a given class session, putting lesson plan on the board to helps involve students in the progress of the lesson and reinforce classroom direction.
  • Pop-up projects: Perhaps counter-intuitively, having a plan can actually allow greater flexibility, because it’s easier to see what will have to be cut or reconsidered. This lets you run a pop-up newsroom during important events, for example, even though it is not in the syllabus.

Mix it up!

  • Choreograph your class, keeping in mind that you generally want to balance four key elements, especially during long class sessions: guest speakers, lectures, peer-to-peer learning, and presentations or critiques.  
  • Students can be intimidated. Mixing something familiar with something scary: a cool new app + People On Street interviews
  • How do you re-write this story? Take some good stories, break into constituent parts. How would you storyboard it for a different platform?

Game on

  • How to make quizzes that students look forward to? Technique is to have ungraded quizzes administered at beginning of class, fun questions. Ungraded means low stakes.
  • Role play: Each person becomes a part of the web networking system
  • Physical exercises: combining apps with physical networks

What’s needed:

  • Example datasets that are good for teaching

Session 2: Social Media, chat applications, community engagement

In the second session, we took on Snapchat and social journalism — two areas of practice that were relatively new to many attendees. Both topics also instigated important discussions, from Snapchat’s imperative towards vertical video to the relationship between social journalism and advocacy — a topic that would return to the forefront in our third and final session.

2.1 Snapchat for Journalists – Sissel McCarthy / Hunter College

Session slides

Although Snapchat is used heavily for personal messaging, in January 2015 the platform launched “Discover” with a handful of publishers. Yet many questions remain about how to use the service effectively for journalistic content.

Why it appeals

The appeal of Snapchat comes largely from its popularity among millennials (it is the 8th most popular download), who value the fact that it is not a “sterile, adult” space.

Approaches to teaching

Snapchat offers a unique opportunity to observe and critique how news organizations are leveraging a new format, and it also provides students with room to experiment with how a story looks across different platforms. Although not all instructors have deep experience with Snapchat, it does offer the chance for students and instructors to learn together.

Example exercises:

  • A Snapchat explainer as a story.
  • Using Snapchat to do six words on race, student loans etc. (adapted from a Wall Street Journal piece)
  • Tell me a story about yourself or show me a process using Vine or Snapchat.

Snapchat can also be a good segue into other types of short-form visual content, like animated GIFs, “snackable graphics”, Twitter cards, etc. These kinds of materials can often be used across several platforms, including Snapchat.

What’s needed:

  • A better understanding of Discover. Is it really a platform where people are consuming news? Most statistics cover Snapchat as a whole, and more specific metrics can be difficult to obtain.



2.2 Teaching Social + Community Journalism – Carrie Brown / CUNY

Session slides

The Social Journalism program at CUNY takes a service- and audience-oriented approach to journalism, and students there focus on reporting about specific communities. While our discussions touched on a range of issues—including advocacy, business models and engagement—the program’s mix of reporting, technology, data and engagement certainly reflects the direction of many journalism programs today.

Journalism, ethics, advocacy

If social journalism places communities and audience interests at the center, does this make it a type of advocacy, and if so, what are the drawbacks? In the past, some journalistic projects driven by  audience suggestions ended up with a focus on watchdog journalism, which is at least some part of many organizations’ mission. If a story gets a strong audience response, is it an artificial line for journalistic organizations to say: “We are going to hide information about how to help the subject of the story” because that would be advocacy?

Ethical considerations around social journalism also work in the other direction, however. For example, is it a problem to cater to your audience’s interests just to increase revenues. And if so, how is this different from the practices of “niche” publication? It also raises questions about the boundaries between engagement and selling a product – even if that product is your own journalism.

Student perspectives

In general, instructors’ experience was that students enjoyed being  followed, and having their work liked  and shared. Many instructors also reported that their students in journalism programs were often quite open about their interest in working for advocacy and aid organizations. In any case, one of the most important lessons of social journalism—and perhaps all journalism—is about how to work with and understand communities that students are covering, not just “parachuting in” when a particular story breaks.

Editorial perspectives

In the 1990s there was a fair amount of resistance among elite news organizations to the perceived loss of editorial control that can result when audience interests take the lead. Yet given that the “one-to-many” relationship between news outlets and audience members no longer as applicable, it may be time for journalistic organizations to explore their role as sources of research, alternatives and solutions for problems of public concern.


Session 3: Emerging Issues in Digital Journalism

Our final session of the day focused on emerging issues in digital journalism, and in doing so returned to some of the emerging themes of the day: ethics, advocacy and new platforms for journalism. The first talk of the session prompted reflections about how to encourage creativity and innovation, without losing sight of the essentials. In the second talk, recurring questions around advocacy and ethics led to some spirited exchanges about traditional journalistic assumptions and the evolution of the field.

3.1 Writing for the End User – Aileen Gallagher / Syracuse University

Session slides

Emerging issues

Journalism is still a rapidly evolving field, which means the job market is evolving as well. While we all want to prepare our students to be competitive, it’s important not tie yourself  to teaching based on what job a student might get. Instead, make sure they learn the basics and encourage students to think about what kind of job they want to get in two years.

For instructors, of course, it can be difficult to always stay ahead of the curve, especially with the pace of change in technologies and platforms used for journalism. One thing to keep in mind is that this presenta an opportunity for co-learning with your students (see Snapchat discussion, above). But you can also focus on the role and function of story on new platforms, whether or not you understand the technology intimately. Differences among platforms also highlight the need to have an “elevator pitch” for every story or project, so that those who don’t know the tech (which may include future employers) can appreciate the piece. Because, as one participant pointed out “if the story is missing, the[se projects] are no good to us.”


Perhaps unexpectedly, one key strategy for innovation encouraged by the those teaching tech-heavy courses was to remove technology from the equation. Paper prototyping, storyboarding and discussion exercises were all advocated as a way to encourage critical thinking and creativity, rather than having students “think through the tool” when they go straight to a particular program or format.

Example exercises:

  • Teach how students how to learn by modeling an approach for exploring a single tool, then having them follow this process for a new one.
  • Leverage the value of user research: Have students observe audiences and how they actually use and engage with various forms of journalism.
  • Bring in storytellers. Students are often inspired by individuals, so have those folks come and talk about their work, whom they are reaching and how.

3.2 Making the Case for New Taxonomies in Journalism – Jan Schaffer / J-Lab

Session slides

Our final talk of the day focused on changing attitudes about journalism — from both inside and outside the industry. Pulling together conversations from earlier in the day, the discussion focused issues about advocacy, audience, and the role of journalists and journalism in a social-networked world.

Advocacy, independence and investigations

A key question that once again took the floor during this session was: What constitutes advocacy? Does publishing a visualization of how a downtown thoroughfare might look count as “activist” or “advocacy” journalism? (A little extra: See this Sept. 30 interactive from The Times). What about journalism that encourages participation in civic programs, like pre-kindergarten and voter registration? If these activities do constitute advocacy, how does this connect or conflict with other newsroom values? As one participant pointed out, investigative journalism often has an “advocacy” element, yet investigations are considered one of the most important types of even “traditional” journalism.

Audience interest

The question of audience interest also came up in this discussion, with audience behaviors suggesting that journalists’ news priorities do not carry the weight that they once might have.  In many cases, audiences are paying increasing attention to the work of advocacy groups because they are invested in the issues they cover.

Social Media

Social media has also changed the role of journalism in society, as the basics of breaking news increasingly reach audiences via non-news platforms and feeds. As former Columbia Journalism School Dean Nick Lemann has highlighted, this necessitates a shift from the “hunter-gatherer” model of journalism to a “value-added” model.

Not Everything is Neutral

With issues of false equivalence dominating the media’s self-reflections this election cycle (including this piece from almost exactly one year ago), the idea of “neutrality” about certain issues arose as well. One participant asked whether there were certain issues about which one could (or should) claim to be neutral. It was also highlighted that certain forms of journalism have always been an exception to the traditional rule of “balance.” As one participant noted, journalism about 9/11 is not expected to represent “both sides.”

The Tow Center’s Educators’ Symposium was just the first in a series of gatherings that designed to provide journalism educators with opportunities to discuss their work and share their insights. If you have questions, comments, or contributions, please feel free to email us at with the subject line “Educator’s Symposium.”