The real problem with the “Should journalists learn to code” question

As regular as clockwork, and almost as much fun as “are bloggers journalists?”, the “should journalists learn to code” debate has flared up again. Here’s my definitive take on why there is a problem with the debate.

There is one very simple problem at the heart of the question “Should journalists learn to code?” Well, two actually.

1. Nobody can currently agree on a definition of “journalist”.

And

2. Nobody can currently agree on a definition of “coding”.

Would the world be a better place in 2013 if everybody in the newsroom knew some basic HTML & CSS? Yes, undoubtedly.

Would the world be a better place in 2013 if everybody in the newsroom was a full stack developer with their own Github account? Probably not, because, for a start, I’d still be wanting some of them to be concentrating on reporting.

One suspects that the people arguing vociferously that journalists should learn no code as it is a distraction from their main function have probably never worked with a journalist who doesn’t even understand what a hyperlink is. Or have ever submitted some carefully marked-up copy full of hyperlinks which is going into a web CMS, only to have all the links stripped out by a “well-meaning” sub-editor. These types of people need to skill up or get the hell out of 21st century newsrooms.

However, one also suspects that the people arguing that journalists should learn Python or Ruby or somesuch are generally quite gifted programmers who have been doing it for a long time, who under-estimate how much time and practice it would take up when you are also holding down a day job with deadlines.

As Mary Hamilton puts it, when people talk about “journalists learning to code” often they really mean that journalists need to attain a degree of digital literacy to survive in today’s jobs market. And surely nobody could argue with that?

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