If you’re a journalist who works with data, chances are good that at some point you’ve looked for a better way to search through, analyze and present the numbers that support your reporting.
Data reporters and other journalists who routinely work with data have turned to R, a programming language specifically made for statistical analysis. Journalists have used it to enhance their reporting on topics ranging from the changing colors of leaves in the fall to tracking hidden spy planes.
In its latest efforts to help journalists stay up-to-date with the digital revolution, the Knight Center is offering the Massive Open Online Course (MOOC) “Intro to R for Journalists: How to Find Great Stories in Data.”
Andrew Ba Tran, investigative data reporter at the Washington Post, will be instructor of this MOOC. He will teach how to use the programming language R to improve data analysis and reporting. The five-week course runs from July 23 to August 26, 2018.
“You don’t have to be a data scientist to use R. In a few steps, we will walk through how R can ask questions of data, whether it’s to explore a hunch or enhance an investigation,” Tran said. “We’re going to start with heaps of numbers, and end up with polished charts and maps — all while laying the groundwork to easily repeat these steps for your next project.”
The course is possible thanks to generous support from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, which awarded the Center a $600,000 grant in April 2016 to expand its online journalism education program over the following four years. The Knight Center’s MOOCs have already reached more than 140,000 people from over 175 countries.
“We have already taught thousands of people from around the world several courses on data journalism, including an ongoing MOOC on data visualization and a recent course on Python. Many of our previous students asked for a course on R, so here we go,” said professor Rosental Alves, founder and director of the Knight Center.
“We are delighted to have attracted Andrew Ba Tran to teach this course. He is an experienced instructor who comes from the frontlines of data journalism, from the award winning team of the Washington Post,” Alves said.
Andrew Ba Tran will teach the basics of programming in R during week one and will dedicate week two to learning how to wrangle data to find cities where serial killers may have struck. During week three, students will create data visualizations using R. In week four, they will learn how to visualize geographical data using real Census and traffic stop data from the U.S. state of Connecticut to see where racial profiling might be happening.
And during week five, students will benefit from Tran’s emphasis on reproducible research, investigations that can be replicated using data and code provided by the researcher. Journalists can create and customize notebooks from their data analysis and post them in html or PDF.
“Putting in the work to document and make your data analysis reproducible enhances transparency, builds trust among readers, promotes community, and makes it easier to share and update your work,” Tran emphasized.
After completing the course, students will be able to:
- Import different types of data into R
- Wrangle, clean, join and analyze data
- Create exploratory and publishable visualizations
- Make static and interactive maps with geolocated data and Census data
- Join the reproducible research movement and publish their methodology
Unlike spreadsheet programs such as Excel, R can handle larger amounts and a wider degree of data, and can process them quickly. Users can also combine spreadsheets very easily using the language. Additionally, R enthusiasts have created packages that work with the open-source language and are available to create more interesting visualizations.
Although a working understanding of statistics is helpful, it’s not necessary for using R. Once students get acquainted with the language in this course, they’ll be ready to tackle robust statistical analysis in R.
The course is designed for journalists, editors, technology professionals, students and faculty, but is open to anyone with an interest in data analysis and visualization.
As part of the MOOC, students will view video lectures from Tran, complete readings and handouts, participate in discussion forums and take quizzes. Participants will use open-source software and open-source packages created by members of the R community.
Tran is a data reporter on the rapid-response investigative team at the Washington Post and an adjunct professor at American University in Washington, D.C. Before joining the Post, he was a data editor at TrendCt.org from the Connecticut Mirror and a data producer at the Boston Globe. He has contributed to reports that have been awarded Pulitzer Prizes. In 2018, he was part of a team at the Post that won the Pulitzer Prize for Investigative Reporting for coverage of Senate candidate Roy Moore in Alabama, and in 2014, he contributed to coverage of the Boston Marathon bombings, which won the Pulitzer for Breaking News Reporting. Tran also worked at the Virginian-Pilot and the South Florida Sun-Sentinel, and is a Metpro Fellow and a Chips Quinn Scholar.
Like all Knight Center courses, this MOOC will be asynchronous, meaning students can complete activities on the days and times that best suit their schedules. However, there are recommended weekly deadlines to ensure students don’t fall behind.
The course is free, but students interested in obtaining a participation certificate must be active in discussion forums, successfully complete weekly quizzes and pay a US $30 administrative fee by credit card. No formal course credit is associated with the certificate.
About the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation
The Knight Foundation is a national foundation with strong local roots that invests in journalism, the arts, and in the success of cities where brothers John S. and James L. Knight once published newspapers. Its goal is to foster informed and engaged communities, which it believes are essential for a healthy democracy. For more, visit kf.org.
About the Knight Center
The Knight Center for Journalism in the Americas was created in 2002 by Professor Rosental Alves, Knight Chair of Journalism at the Moody School of Communication at the University of Texas, thanks to the generous donations of the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation. The Knight Center’s distance learning program began in 2003 and is funded in part by the Knight Foundation. Over the past five years, Knight Center MOOCs have reached more than 140,000 people in more than 175 countries.