Note: This document is subject to change; if it does, students will be notified. Last updated June 23, 2011.

Digital Frameworks for Reporting

Class Time: Thurs. 6-9 p.m.

Instructor: Derek Willis

Contact Details: Students may feel free to contact me via phone or email. My work number is 202-904-1168, but the best way to reach me is by email at dwillis AT My AIM is derekpwillis. If you see me online and available, feel free to ask. If my status is anything but available, try email instead.

Course Objective: The objective of this course is to familiarize students with digital tools that will become the frameworks with which they can approach storytelling, emphasizing the use of structured data and the visualization of data to aid in the understanding of complex information. The course establishes a deep understanding of the basic principles with which government collects and distributes information, with an emphasis on a new set of tools, dubbed Gov. 2.0, that’s allowing the public greater access to and interaction with data than ever before. Students will use visualization tools to find the story hidden in the data and then apply that by determining the most appropriate platform for storytelling that will engage an audience. The course will highlight emerging database tools and familiarize students with how to design interfaces that can differentiate their reporting.

While students will examine a variety of government data, they will spend most of their time working with data involving politics and the 2010 Census. These will be obtained from a variety of sources official and unofficial. The final project described below will encompass some or all of the datasets we work with in class, but the students will choose their own areas of focus.

Readings: There are no textbooks for this course. We will have weekly readings chosen from professional data work, government documents, blog posts and other sources. Students will be expected to discuss these readings in class and online.

Grading: Each student’s final grade will be determined by five factors described below. While I will communicate any concerns that I have about individual performance, please do not hesitate to contact me with questions about grading or general performance.

In-class and homework assignments: Students will be required to complete exercises involving the use of spreadsheets, databases and other tools both during class and outside of class. It is your responsibility to find computer time for the outside assignments. All assignments are to be handed in at the beginning of each class or can be emailed before class. Late work will be penalized on a sliding scale (the later the assignment, the larger the penalty). A good rule: don’t come to class empty-handed – at the very least, show me that you attempted the assignment. Together these assignments constitute 25 percent of each student’s grade.

Written critiques: Each student will complete two written critiques of professional work that makes extensive use of government data. While you may not be able to replicate the reporters’ work, try to put yourself in their shoes and judge the decisions they made. Think of these as mini-book reviews, although I expect between 500-750 words for each. Combined, these critiques make up 10 percent of each student’s grade.

Mid-term: Each student will be responsible for obtaining, analyzing and visualizing a federal government data set assigned to him/her, using methods we’ll cover in class. This assignment constitutes 15 percent of each student’s grade.

Story Memo: Students will obtain and analyze federal government data and write a story memo about their findings, rather than writing an actual story. The emphasis is on the process more than the final product, although the memo should reflect the depth of your work. Students must submit a proposed topic or question to write about by mid-July, although earlier submissions are welcomed. While some in-class project time will be provided, prepare to spend significant time outside class working on this assignment. Each student will be required to hand in a well-written memo describing in detail the work done on the project and the handling of the underlying data. The memo should also address any weaknesses in the data or unexpected events that hampered or improved the process. This project will make up 25 percent of each student’s grade.

Agency Data Assessment: Each student will, as part of the story memo project, undertake a study of the data offerings of the agency that produced the data set used for the story memo. This study will result in a short paper assessing the scope, quality and accessibility of the agency’s data, how it has been used by journalists and how it could be used. The paper should also identify opportunities for agencies to release or organize data of public interest. This paper constitutes 10 percent of each student’s grade.

Attendance and participation: Journalism is not a passive activity and requires focus, inquisition and involvement. We will be discussing professional work, writings and data issues every week, and I expect your comments, questions and other contributions to our class. None of this can happen if you don’t show up. These factors constitute 15 percent of your final grade.

Academic Integrity: Medill has an academic integrity code. You should read it, even if you’re not intending to violate it. Academic dishonesty will not be tolerated and will result in a failing grade for that assignment; as in professional journalism, you are responsible for doing your own work.


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