An analytic mindset is important in any job

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One of the best things about writing for the sascom blog is the amazing number of people, both internally and externally, that have reached out to share their stories and perspective, and ask more questions. It’s important for us bloggers to remember that while we may not see published comments beneath our blogs, the post should always be the start, not the end, of a conversation.

I generally write from the analyst’s perspective – different things we can do as analysts to be successful in our personal and professional lives. I received an internal e-mail this morning from someone who had been reading some of my posts on analytics and asked a great question:

“I have a daughter graduating at the top of her class, very high SATs, very good in math, that really wants to major in journalism. She is also interested in politics, so is looking towards political journalism. I am strongly encouraging her to also focus on analytics and visualization, taking lots of statistics type courses during her college years. Are you aware of any really good resources that would emphasize the value of analytics in journalism? While it may seem intuitively obvious to you and I, it is hard to get this through to her.”

My undergrad degree is in English literature and writing – I came into the analytic space by accident – and as you can imagine, it’s often difficult to find jobs in liberal arts. Years later, I find that the skills I learned in that program have served me better than a more focused undergraduate degree (that’s where the Master’s degree came in handy). The disciplines of analytics, creative/critical thinking and writing/communication skills are incredibly intertwined. However, I also know that colleges and universities can be a little behind in bundling some of these subject areas together, so we need to take the lead on our own. Ask your journalism majors to take analytic classes and statisticians to take writing classes.

The work I’ve done over the past few years has been focused on teaching and educating statisticians and technologists on the importance of good critical thinking, writing and communication skills. But if you flip the coin, think of how important it is to have writers with excellent analytic skills. It’s an author’s job to accurately interpret and objectively communicate detailed information and data without bias – not many journalists (or even analysts!) do that well. If journalists (analysts!) really are crusaders of the truth, they should be held accountable for accurately portraying information in a way that is easily understood and interpreted by the reader. What recommendations can the analytic community make to help our budding young journalist? Are there good analytic resources that writers can tap into?

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About Author

Rachel Alt-Simmons

Business Transformation Lead - Customer Intelligence Practice

Rachel Alt-Simmons is a business transformation practitioner whose expertise extends to operationalizing analytic capabilities vertically and horizontally through organizations. As the Business Transformation Lead for customer analytics at SAS Institute, she is responsible for redesign and optimization of operational analytic workflow, business process redesign, training/knowledge transfer, and change management strategies for customers. Prior to SAS, Rachel served as Assistant Vice President, Center of Excellence, Enterprise Business Intelligence & Analytics at Travelers, and as Director, BI & Analytics, Global Wealth Management at The Hartford. Rachel Alt-Simmons is a certified Project Management Professional, certified Agile Practitioner, Six Sigma Black Belt, certified Lean Master, and holds a post as adjunct professor of computer science at Boston University’s Metropolitan College. She received her master’s degree in Computer Information Systems from Boston University.

8 Comments

  1. I love this post -- and am not exactly objective on this subject, as I started my professional career as a reporter. While I was the stereotypical math-phobic scribe, I still admire the rare journalists whose writing is strong and credible because their articles are based on analytics. Great stories are hiding in the vast piles of digital data stacking up every minute of every day. I am sure the young woman mentioned in your blog will be one of the rare few to find and report those stories. Here's a post I did a couple of years ago on this very subject:
    http://blogs.sas.com/sascom/index.php?/archives/62-Reporters-use-SAS-Yes!.html

  2. Rachel Alt-Simmons on

    Hi Beverly - thanks so much for your post! Maybe we can get the young lady in question to add her comments. It's great to know that there are a lot of others out there who appreciate and value the ability that good analytics can bring to a story.

  3. Probably the best option for someone who wants to use analytics in journalism is to take a boot camp at the National Institute for Computer-Assisted Reporting (NICAR). They have a few around the country, and they're very useful. You can pick up some limited training through Investigative Reporters and Editors (IRE and NICAR are both based at the University of Missouri in Columbia), both at workshops and conferences. It's also a good idea to track down your state professional journalists' association and ask them about training.
    It also wouldn't hurt to be able to present data on the web. There are a few journalists who can use analytics, and there are a few journalists who can put their data on a news website, but there are hardly any who can do both.
    I've used data just about every day for the last 15 years, as director of computer investigations for the AP and as an analyst for Bloomberg; it certainly hasn't hurt my career. The biggest journalistic issue to be aware of is the time-intensive nature of most data-driven stories. Not all employers are terribly tolerant of that issue these days.

  4. Thanks for the pointer to NICAR/IRE. Talk about timing, they are having a conference right here in Raleigh next month. I will try and take my daughter to the conference. I am also curious, have you looked at applying the SAS tool called JMP? http://www.jmp.com

  5. Caroline McCullen on

    Rachel,
    I will leave the question about analytic resources for journalists to others, but I do believe graduates who have both analytical skills and the ability to communicate effectively will be the first hired.
    You have actually touched on a critical issue that is often overlooked in efforts to inspire more students to major in the STEM fields (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math). In fact, your post reminded me of an old essay by Thomas Huxley that I read in undergraduate school. (Full disclosure: I was an English major, too!) I couldn’t remember the exact text so I looked it up, and it is still quite relevant today. In his essay on “Science and Culture,” Huxley compares knowledge to a ship’s cargo and cautions that “…the value of the cargo does not compensate for a ship’s being out of trim; and I should be very sorry to think that the Scientific College would turn out none but lop-sided men.”
    If our education system produces journalists who have weak backgrounds in analytics and STEM skills, we are doing them a disservice. And if we produce graduates who have only STEM knowledge without strong creative writing, reading, and literary backgrounds, then our workforce will be “lop-sided.” If we intend to maintain (regain?) our position as a leading economy, we need graduates who are well-rounded, critical thinkers and problem-solvers.
    As author Daniel Pink says, “We need engineers and scientists who think like artists. And we need artists who think like scientists and engineers. But if we have engineers who only think like technicians, we’re going to be in a world of hurt.” Kudos to your friend for encouraging her daughter to “trim her ship!”

  6. Hi David. When I was in J-school, we were required to have two specializations or focus areas of study on top of journalism. At the time, I chose political science and psychology because they were good general topics that I enjoyed learning. I was also the lone journalism student taking calculus and math theory classes to fulfill my foreign language requirements (through a strange loophole that said high-level math course could count as foriegn language credits). I've always kind of regretted that I didn't choose my specializations more based on a passion or a tightly focused topic. Friends who specialized in econ or outdoor recreation were better prepared for the niche publishing market.
    I've also often wondered how things might have turned out if I had majored in math and minored in journalism. My natural aptitude for math was always higher than it was for English, but I enjoyed writing so much that I selected journalism as a major. What I know now and didn't know then is that the ability to write will benefit you in ANY career. That really hit home for me in grad school when I taught tech writing to Jr and Sr engineering and computer science majors.But that's a whole different story! Suffice it to say, writing is not a skill that comes naturally to everyone in that field, so it can be beneficial to those who know how to do it well.
    Best of luck to your daughter as she begins her college career!

  7. My new favorite blogger and math cheerleader is Vi Hart - young music major, artist and math freak who doesn't settle for complaining about the boring, plodding approach we take to teaching kids math.
    She shows the other side, with wild, energetic and contagiously enthusiastic posts and videos about math and real life. If only all math teachers mad it this much fun, not to mention relevant. See this NYTImes article http://aol.it/hIbYl2
    and her blog http://vihart.com/
    Prepare to become a huge math fan (and Vi fan).

  8. Faye Merrideth on

    Thanks for your note, Frank. I'm Faye from SAS. In the training examples you mentioned, do you recall which areas of text analysis were taught?

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