16 Sept 2014

Should journalists be able to code?

I've recently, as a journalist, began learning to code. I already knew enough HTML to just about get me through content management systems and basic design issues, but that was about it. Now, I've branched out with the aim of being able to code my own website from scratch and build slick infographics and interactive material to improve my journalism. This recent new endeavour has led me to consider a question often asked: should we be able to code?

Website development is becoming an integral part of journalism, which poses this common question. Code is behind everything that we read online: this blog post, your Tweets, the BBC's homepage. Surely, then, journalists should be able to code - or, at least, they should be able to understand how their words get translated into the user-friendly interfaces they're read on?

When I was Digital Editor of my student newspaper, Redbrick, I saw how code is essential to everything we do - hosting live events, website design, multimedia and much, much more. If we had more developers, more of our work would have been presented in a much better way. The internet offers a plethora of opportunities, and these are only harnessed once you've got that understanding of what you can do and how you can do it - by utilising the potential of code.

Today's budding journalists want to make cool longform pieces, slick interactive pages, and engaging multimedia articles. So surely learning to code is worth it, if that is the key to achieve these great online pieces?

Yes. It's true. By having the right coding skills, journalists can produce brilliant online pieces, utilising the advantages of CSS and Javascript, for example, to enhance their website's design and interactivity. However, this is not the journalist's primary role. 

Newspapers have large development teams for a reason; journalists should perhaps focus more on their primary roles, such as investigation, research and engagement. A basic understanding of the possibilities of code alongside this will help them in the process of journalist-developer convergence. 

This seems to be the best solution, and the one that newsrooms are settling on. Talented journalists who focus on the fundamental journalistic roles of researching, investigating, interviewing, writing, recording, filming and engaging will retain the skills needed to uncover great work, whilst their basic code understanding will allow them to buddy up with developers to discuss how best to present their product. 

This process, whereby both parties understand one another, will lead to the harmonisation of the newsroom and a better overall product, via whatever medium. Where it is threatened is by developers and journalists failing to understand one another's work and strengths. 

There are several free tools available, such as Codecademy, to help you teach yourself this sought-after skill. A basic knowledge of some code will help you understand your online work better; a comprehensive knowledge of HTML and CSS will set you apart in the newsroom. Maybe leave the Javascript and other more complex languages to professional developers.

So perhaps the solution lies in having journalists who understand code, and coders who understand journalism. This way, the newsroom can converge, without any divide between the two. Whilst learning how to work with five or  six different code languages would usually be unnecessary for the standard journalist, having an awareness of what codes are out there and how they work would mean that they'd be able to produce great products when working with specialist developers. 

With journalists understanding the functionality of different code languages, they'll be able to know what's practical for their project, and will also be able to go about their work thinking about the best ways to allow the reader to engage with their work. Equally, coders who understand the journalistic process will ensure that they value its angle, motive and audience. 

For the typical journalist, then, anything more than a basic understanding of code seems best as an optional specialism, just as some journalists decide to focus on video, photos or audio. Knowing what codes are out there and how they work, however, will be an increasingly important tool. 


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