5 Questions for a (Formerly) Pissed Off Journalism Student

In a column late last week for The Badger Herald student newspaper, University of Wisconsin-Madison senior Polo Rocha began with a confession.

“I started reporting this column as a pissed off journalism student,” Rocha wrote. “It’s not that I’m ungrateful for the wonderful classes and professors I’ve had at University of Wisconsin’s journalism school. It’s that my experience there lacked something.”

What should students expect from their journalism school experience nowadays? And how much and how fast should journalism educators adapt to keep up with a media landscape which Vogue editor-in-chief Anna Wintour recently called “the Wild West.”

As Wintour shared in a New York Magazine interview, “You walk on the street and get a Starbucks and things have changed by the time you come back to the office.”

Or the classroom. In Rocha’s words, “Keeping a modern curriculum is an issue journalism schools across the country grapple with.”


Rocha, 22, a political science and journalism double major, also grappled with this issue in his column. Built atop his own observations and interviews with current and former students, professors and professional journalists, he cited a number of core components that should be part of every modern journalism school.

Chief among them: more digital, more data, greater in-class publishing opportunities, more working journalists leading courses and more engaged students (in and out of the classroom).

Hemant Shah, director of UW-Madison’s School of Journalism and Mass Communication, praised Rocha’s piece as “a nuanced analysis of the situation supported with solid evidence.”

Based on evidence Rocha uncovered during his reporting, he confirmed, “I’m no longer as pissed off. Because here’s the good news: The j-school recognizes the issue and is finally doing something about it.”

In the Q&A below, Rocha shares more about what administrators, professors and undergrads should be doing to survive and thrive in journalism’s Wild West — from the perspective of a (formerly) pissed off journalism student.

You mention the significance of data journalism multiple times in your column. Why do you think it is so essential for students to learn, and do you have any suggestions on how best to teach it or work it into a journalism program?


Polo Rocha, 22, is a senior political science and journalism double major at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

Knowing which numbers to use and how to best show them to readers is crucial to helping them understand the story better. It’s also helpful as a reporter to understand the numbers that public officials use — and know why some might be flawed. This is only something you can do if you become comfortable with numbers.

I generally think anything that can be a story idea on its own should be something j-schools train their students a good amount on. So student journalists should get training in spotting patterns in data or areas like requesting open records. At the end of the day, journalism is about story ideas, and being able to tell an employer that you can bring these types of story ideas is extremely valuable.

I don’t have necessarily specific suggestions, but I think it is best to keep it as easy as possible. I don’t think j-schools should ever teach R [a common programming language in statistics and data science], for example, but I think giving students some exposure to what you can do with data is important.

I remember getting one day of data training in [an introductory journalism] course. Sometime later I found myself remembering that you can sort data on Excel, so I went ahead and did it for a story. There are some easy and important stories that you can do with basic Excel calculations [an example of one data-driven story Rocha carried out]. And getting students comfortable with the idea that some data stories are extremely simple is absolutely necessary.

I don’t necessarily think you should come out of the j-school trained to be a data journalist, but you should at least understand what they do and you need to have done something similar at some point.

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