Should Journalists Learn Programming?

Thanks to Mark Luckie at

It is a great infographic but it is also a great question, not only for journalists but for anyone who would not normally consider learning how to program as something suitable or worthwhile for them to put time and effort into.

With increasingly sophisticated interfaces which hide the guts of an operating system away from the user becoming the norm and interactions reduced to pressing and swiping a screen there is barely a need to know anything about how a given computer or smartphone really works.

So what arguments exist for taking on the additional and sometimes arduous chore of learning to program a computer?

We’ll let you answer that in the comments section.

An alternative approach would be to look at why you shouldn’t learn to program.

Well, first of all programming is hard: It can be but learning to programme can be done in small bite-size chunks. There are some fantastic manuals out there and a lot of thought has gone into how best to allow newbies get their feet wet without drowning them at the get-go.

There are so many languages where would one start?: Most programmers have a preferred language they like to work with. But I would recommend HTML. Simply because it is the one you are most likely to come across on discussion boards and blogs etc. Usually, a blank dialog box with a bunch of funny symbols along the top is a big clue that you can enter your text and be able to tidy it up or lay it out using HTML. You can learn most of the commands over a weekend and it is amazing how far you can go with it before you will feel the need for something more sophisticated.

More time at the computer: Ah, well, you have me there.

Would I be worse off if I learned a little programming know-how?: Not as facetious as it first sounds. The conventional idea that a little knowledge can be a dangerous thing holds true in progamming as elsewhere. However, with even a little programming knowledge an invaluable understanding can be gleaned as to what it really takes to write good code for any kind of project.

That alone might make it worth the effort.

Personally, I never got past the “crying at the keyboard” stage.

5 thoughts on “Should Journalists Learn Programming?

  1. Nice article – the HTML recommendation is good – a good way to start is to view source for a page and look how they did it… Same with PHP which is the next step – it’s a combo of HTML and code – you can do stuff like <html>bold textMore…</html> as a first go… Install XAMPP on a PC or Mac to set up a local webserver for testing HTML or PHP…Microsoft Visual Basic was one of the earlier mainstream drag and drop programming interfaces, where you created your interface graphically and then wrote minimal code behind the scenes if all you are really trying to do is some kind of GUI. The iPhone stuff is similar; a lot of it is placement on the screen using Xcode / Dashboard and then some coding – but the effort required to create fancy GUIs is being removed. Then if you try stuff like Yahoo Pipes online, it allows you to create sophisticated RSS feed mashups through a really cool web-based interface.


  2. One thing that journalists should learn imho is how to interpret statistics. Journos reach dubious conclusions based on faulty statistical analysis of data all the time– I see it in the paper every day.


  3. Very true John, but ironically it may be journalism itself that is trying to sort the issue out. Check out this Nieman Journalism Lab story “How The Guardian is Pioneering Data Journalism with Free Tools.” I particularly like this quote.”And we, on the site, we use the phrase “facts are sacred.” And this comes from the famous C. P. Scott who said that “comment is free,” which as you know is the name of our comment site, but “facts are sacred” was the second part of the saying. And I kinda think that is– you can see it on the comment site, there you go. “Comment is free, but facts are sacred.” And that’s what The Guardian’s about. I really think that, you know, this says a lot about the web. Interestingly, I think that’s how the web is changing, in the sense that a few years ago it was just about comment. People wanted to say what they thought. Now I think it’s, increasingly, people want to find out what the facts are.”


  4. Interesting stuff. Everyone’s now a publisher. So the new role of journalism is perhaps to sift through all the bs, spin, conspiracy freaks, bad research, partisan opinions etc. found online and present to the people the simple facts of the matter. Thus finding a genuine and vitally important role in society once again.


  5. Couldn’t agree more with post. I believe everyone in the US should know 3 languages, English, a “foreign” language and a programming language – as developers are the bottleneck to translating so many ideas into reality.


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