CAR class keys to success

Excelling in the Computer-Assisted Reporting class (and at data journalism) takes dedication. It’s easy enough to attend every class, contribute to discussions and complete every homework assignment by deadline to earn a solid grade. But, students who want to excel must go beyond the minimum. In my 14 years of teaching this class at the Missouri School of Journalism, I’ve noticed that the top students are:

Curious. They want to know how the world really works and aren’t satisfied with conventional wisdom or superficial explanations. When they work with data, they keep trying to ask questions and get to the bottom of things.

Detail-oriented. All of journalism requires attention to detail. We strive to spell the names and record the job titles of sources correctly. My top students understand that all databases are dirty and they go to lengths to understand the scope and nature of the problems.

Resourceful. Students run into problems all the time when they’re working with data. Even the most seasoned data journalists encounter new and gnarly challenges. The best know how to solve problems tapping into online resources, such as software documentation, message boards and listservs. No one can know everything, so it’s important to learn how to learn.

Unafraid of failure. We all learn CAR with lots of practice and failure. (I’m speaking from personal experience here.) This is especially true when we learn how to use Structured Query Language (SQL) to ask questions about data, a process that can be highly experimental.

Obsessive about documenting their work. They keep data-negotiation logs that detail their interactions with government officials. Also, they keep audit trails of their data cleaning and analysis, so anyone can see exactly what work they’ve performed.

Practitioners of safe computing. When they work with data, they always keep a safe copy of their original files in another location. If they need to clean their data, they preserve the original columns for reference.

Proactive. The best students stay on top of assignments by meeting homework deadlines and consistently moving ahead with their data negotiation efforts. Even more, they communicate early with me about potential problems and class conflicts.

Engaged. In the classroom, the best students give their undivided attention and presence to whatever is happening that day, whether it’s a lecture, hands-on practice or discussion. When everyone participates, the class is better for all. Outside the classroom, they are aware of what’s going in here in Columbia and around the world.