Columbia’s Mark Hansen to journalists: ‘You have to get your hands dirty. You have to write some code.’

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In an essay published earlier this week, a writer for The Atlantic, Olga Khazan, stirred up the growing debate over whether journalists ought to learn how to code.

Khazan placed herself in the "no" camp, risking being downright unfashionable (because it is, largely, a debate in which the "yes" camp speaks and the "no" camp slinks away).

Her argument in a nutshell:

Aside from a small percentage of journalism students who actually want to be newsroom developers, most j-school enrollees, in my experience, want to be reporters, writers, and editors (or their broadcast equivalents). Meanwhile, reporting and writing jobs are growing increasingly competitive, and as media outlets become savvier on the web, they are building teams dedicated solely to web programming and design work.

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What I took from my experience was this: If you want to be a reporter, learning code will not help. It will only waste time that you should have been using to write freelance articles or do internships—the real factors that lead to these increasingly scarce positions.

But last night, Columbia Journalism School professor Mark Hansen offered a rebuttal during an event on the 15th floor of The New York Times building.

"Data deepens your stories," he said, quoting Jeff Larsen, the data editor of ProPublica. "It's an incredible resource and being able to interview data makes you a better journalist."

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Don't get me wrong, however, I don't want to overly fetishize the task of coding, but in part, knowing to code makes you better able to think about and work with digital technology. Being able to code is, well, code for having a better facility with technology. And that, that my friends, is ultimately about being an effective citizen in our data driven, code-ridden, algorithm rhythm world.

My answer to the Atlantic writer's question of course is very different. I think all journalists need to code because an effective democracy depends on all citizens being able to understand and think about technology. This is not done from the sidelines. You have to get your hands dirty. You have to write some code.

Hansen, who directs the David and Helen Gurley Brown Institute for Media Innovation, was speaking during a cocktail reception introducing a new post-baccalaureate certification program that prepares students for a dual degree in computer science and journalism.

Also on hand were Steve Coll, the longtime New Yorker staff writer and new dean of the Columbia Journalism School, and Emily Bell, director of Columbia's Tow Center for Digital Journalism.

Spotted in the crowd: New York Times public editor Margaret Sullivan; ProPublica editor-in-chief Stephen Engelberg; and Cardozo law professor Susan Crawford, who previously served as President Obama's Special Assistant for Science, Technology, and Innovation Policy.