The Debate Rages On: Do Journalists Need To Code?

Do journalists need to know HTML? What about CSS? Javascript? … Python?

The debate rages on, with the flame fueled again this week by journalist Olga Khazan writing about how she resented the time she spent learning how to write bad code in journalism school instead of doing something more in-line with her specific career goal of writing. Her article for The Atlantic led to Twitter debates for and against. The merry go round of yes, no, maybe goes round and round and round.

I’d join the fray (beyond my comments on Twitter earlier this week) except that I think Robert Hernandez, an accomplished web journalist who actually also teaches at the j-school that writer attended, does a great job explaining why learning code (or at least exposure to it) matters for journalists. As he writes: I’ve had an incredible career because I learn the power behind the phrase “Hello World.” Or as he says later in the post in reference to j-school students who don’t want to learn, “It’s 2013 — are you really arguing against learning technology?”

Not every journalists needs to become intimately familiar with the terminal, but they should be familiar enough to recognize what they’re looking at or to fix some HTML/CSS formatting errors their content management system helpfully drops in their web story or blog post on deadline. They should understand a little of what they’re asking their developers to do when they hand them a database and an idea for a web project. Hernandez does a good job breaking down the different between digital literacy and and coding (a whole other debate in itself). He draws parallels between exposing print students to writing for broadcast and learning to compose photos (both things my j-school, like many others, required I learn even though I didn’t want to be in front of or behind the camera).

Hernandez explains:

When students hear things like “all your students must be programmers,” I can understand the sense of panic they might feel.

I do agree that not all journalists need to learn and master coding in JavaScript, Python, or Ruby. But they should know that it is not magic and, to be successful in their modern careers, they need to be able to communicate and work alongside different experts, including programmers. They need to be, at a minimum, digitally literate.

At USC Annenberg and at other schools, our goal is to prepare you for your career, not just your current job. These digital courses teach more than just a language or how to use software — those are just tools. These courses use those tools to teach you how to think, how to problem solve, how to MacGyver a solution while on deadline.

Having HTML, CSS, FTP, Adobe Photoshop, Final Cut Pro, or Illustrator listed on your resume helps you rather than hurts you. And in today’s competitive journalism job market, you need all the help you can get.

Obviously, you’re reading this blog, so he’s probably preaching to the choir. But if you’re ready to take the plunge or know a journalist who should, we’ve covered how to start teaching yourself code before and where to start for free.

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