How my junior year data journalism course changed my perspective on coding

Managing Editor Julia Merola reflects on her journey into the data journalism world, after hating all things relating to numbers since she was six.


I’ve never liked things I’m not good at, and math is no exception. 

In first grade, my teacher told my mom I excelled in reading and writing, but had little to no grasp of math. During most math lessons, I sat at my teacher’s desk and watched in complete confusion as she went backward on a number line. 

I dreaded math classes from ages six to 18. Middle school timed math practice sheets often gave me anxiety attacks, and every test grade felt like a death sentence. 

I rejected all things relating to numbers after barely surviving Algebra I. I knew I’d never have a career that entailed excessive levels of college math classes because I was meant to do something involving writing instead. 

When I was a sophomore I started my high school’s creative writing major in our Visual Performing Arts Academy. I was finally strengthening the skills I was good at, like writing and editing, and my major felt like a break from the chaos that my geometry class brought to my life. 

In the middle of my sophomore year, my creative writing teacher forced us to participate in a coding competition with the information technology major’s teacher. I hated it. 

I already rejected anything to do with numbers, and I couldn’t figure out the most basic of codes. I watched as my classmates excelled, and I couldn’t help but feel jealous because I wanted to complete at least one code. Instead of trying, I decided to completely disengage from the assignment and pretended to work on some codes while doing work for other classes. 

I was forced to participate again during my junior year. My teacher refused to let me sit back this time and pushed me to try to pass level one. I passed the first level and almost passed the second, and the idea of possibly enjoying coding briefly caught my attention before I completely forgot about any skills I learned only days after the competition ended. 

I spent the next four years in the bare minimum math classes until I decided to take a data journalism course my junior year of college. I thought I’d just coast through the course and manage an A- like I’d managed in any of my previous math classes.

I shockingly exceeded my expectations for the course. Surprisingly, my charts were displayed on the projector for the class to look at and my professor seemed to welcome any challenges I made about different biases behind data collection. 

At the end of the spring semester, I was recruited for an internship with the data desk at The Logan Center for Urban Investigative Reporting and spent May through August learning how to utilize coding languages like Python and D3. 

My first learning module was based on a real story by the Los Angeles Times that analyzed fatal helicopter accidents. I was amazed that I could import a data set, and within minutes, I could determine which helicopter make and model had the most fatal crashes in a specific time period. 

I realized I never enjoyed coding in high school because I wasn’t meant to create a new app or become a computer programmer. Instead, I could combine it with my love for writing and reporting and bring information to people who wouldn’t otherwise be able to access it. 

My first real attempt at a data journalism story was my report on landlord violations near Main Campus. My goal was to create a script that would tell me how many landlord violations occurred within the two zip codes encompassing Main Campus and were within one mile of the university. 

The experience was rewarding but also frustrating, and sometimes I felt like dropping the story entirely because of how long it took me to find the right formulas and get the results I wanted. I finally accomplished my goal after two months of literal sweat and tears, and I was so incredibly proud of the finished product. 

While I’ve often felt behind compared to my peers who are involved in data journalism, I’ve realized I don’t have to be perfect at something right away. Instead, I can take a little extra time to grow and develop new skills to create content that I’m proud of. I don’t have to be the best coder in the data journalism world, but my story and determination speak for themselves. 

I’ve never liked things I’m not good at, but I’m getting better at accepting that I can’t be the best at everything, and some things are worth a little extra struggle.

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