Data Reporting

Course materials for MPJO-722-01, Georgetown University

This project is maintained by dwillis

MPJO-722-01: Data Reporting
Georgetown University: MPS-Journalism
Class Time:

Thurs. 5:20-7:50 p.m.


Derek Willis

Contact Details:

The best way to reach me is by email at dwillis AT My AIM is derekpwillis. I have "open office hours": if you see me online and available, feel free to ask. If my status is anything but available, try email instead.

Course Objective:

The world that we live in and report on is increasingly influenced by data. This course will help you use data to find and develop stories that can’t be found in other ways. Data can be anything: spreadsheets full of numbers, the text of speeches or the measured observations of daily life. Reporters need to be able to treat data as another source to be researched, interviewed and analyzed, using the right tool for the job. Beginning with spreadsheets and continuing to databases, basic mapping and rudimentary programming, this class will make working with data a part of your skill set.

This is a skills-based course, so students will need to be comfortable with learning to use computer software beyond word processors. If you are wondering if you can do this stuff, you can. You may prefer interviewing people to data, but avoiding data - particularly for Washington journalists - is no longer an option.


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.


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.


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. 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.

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. If you must miss a class, please try to let the instructor know in advance. You will be responsible for any work you miss.