Get to Know a Grantee - Professor Stephen Doig

By Maureen Heydt

This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.

Stephen Doig
Stephen Doig
Stephen Doig is a Distinguished Professor and Knight Foundation Chair at the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism at Arizona State University, who has served as a Fulbright Scholar to Masaryk University in Brno this past semester. He specializes in data journalism, the use of social science methods and data analysis to help reporters more ably tell their stories. Doig has built a renowned career as a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, and has spent the last 19 years as a professor at ASU. He was interested in doing a Fulbright to the Czech Republic as a way to spread his expertise in data journalism on an international level, particularly by teaching the future journalists of Europe. Here, he discusses his experiences as a professional journalist, how he found his profession and developed his specialty, his time at Masaryk and ASU, and his special connection to the Czech Republic. 

-------------------------------------- Fast Facts ----------------------------------------

U.S. Position: Distinguished Professor, Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication, Arizona State University, AZ
Czech Affiliation: Faculty of Social Studies, Masaryk University, Brno
Project: Social Science Tools for Journalism in the Czech Republic
Major: Discipline/Specialization: Journalism/Data Journalism, Social Science Methods


Hello! Can you please give a brief introduction of yourself?
My name is Steve Doig, I’m a professional journalist who spent 23 years working for newspapers in Florida, most of that time at the Miami Herald, as an investigative reporter and data journalist. The last 20 years, I’ve been a professor at ASU Cronkite School of Journalism, and I’ve enjoyed that very much. In the Fulbright world, this is the second Fulbright that I’ve been able to enjoy; the first time I was a Distinguished Chair in Lisbon at Universidade Nova de Lisboa. Great experience, great time, and I’m very happy to have a chance to do this here in the Czech Republic at Masaryk University.

What courses are you teaching this semester?
I’m teaching a graduate course called Data Journalism and an undergraduate course called Reporting Public Affairs. My particular specialty in journalism is working with data, using government data and so on to find patterns that help tell stories, or can be used in stories. It’s been interesting for me learning about data that would be of interest to Czech students. I’m used to teaching this kind of thing to American students, but one thing I have learned over a bunch of years doing workshops around the world is that it really helps to have data that means something to the people you are talking to. I have about 25 students in each class, and I’ve been very delighted with them. The majority of them are Czech, but at least half a dozen or more are Erasmus students who come from a variety of places around Europe, and two or three other places, like Algeria, and Mexico. It’s an interesting, international mix of students who are learning from me.

Besides the weather, how is living in Brno different from living in Phoenix?
Definitely the weather! Actually, I’m glad to have had the opportunity to live in this weather, it has not been bad, it’s actually been pretty invigorating. We love living in Brno. We have a very lovely apartment that is steps away from Náměstí Svobody, which has been great. The main square usually always has something going on, one festival after the other. It’s also a five-minute walk to the where I teach, and we’ve learned about a number of really good restaurants here. We regularly eat not only the Czech style, but also Nepalese, Vietnamese, Italian, sushi; you can get any sort of nationality and ethnicity here. It’s been a great place to live, the people that we have met have been really nice, and very forgiving about our horrible language ability that clearly is never going to get any better. My wife has started volunteering to do English conversation with various women here, and has four of those meetings on different days where they talk for an hour. It’s really been a great experience all the way around. After our Lisbon experience, we have wound up going back there two or three times to see friends and so on, and I wholly expect to be doing the same thing here.

We do have a special connection with the Czech Republic; my daughter-in-law is Czech. It was 15 or 17 years ago, I had been invited to give a talk to the BBC in London where my daughter was working as an au pair, and my son was working as a reporter in Florida, but had taken his vacation to come to Europe. My wife said we should all meet for dinner in London, and my daughter wanted to bring her friend, this other au pair, who’s Czech and learning English. My wife said she’ll probably feel out of connection, because we all know each other so well, and my daughter said, “No, Matt’s going to fall in love with her,” and he did! It was a very immediate connection, they lived together in Prague for about a year, and then got married at the city hall next to the clock tower. It’s a great story.

What a wonderful story! And what are some differences you have perceived between Czech and American university students, if any?
When I started out, the Fulbright Commission explained that Czech students kind of are trained as they go through school to sit quietly and absorb, but not talk in class. That’s probably a real difference. My teaching style is I want feedback, I want them talking to me, I want to ask questions, and have them argue with me. I quickly learned to call names out. I understand certainly the reluctance in class because all of them are working in a new language, and it can be scary to stand up, speak loudly, and do it in a language that you don’t know very well. I understood their problem, but I was happy that as time went on, they got used to the idea of the way I teach. That’s a primary thing. I think the commitment to learning things is every bit as good as the American students that I have, and their knowledge of computers and electronic communication is certainly right up there with my students. I really don’t see any negatives, other than that cultural difference in the way that they approach a classroom experience.

How is your host institution, Masaryk University, different from your home institution, Arizona State University?
In many ways, similar in that the physical environment was very similar, good classrooms with very modern equipment, good computer lab and Wi-Fi. Probably the main difference would be the differing background of the faculty. I would say more of the Masaryk professors mostly come out of academia, they’re very much scholars, and at the Cronkite School we have a number of good scholars, but I would say our orientation is very professional. That’s how people like me are able survive at the Cronkite School, because they value my professional background, so that may be the biggest difference.

One other thing that I’ve heard, and I don’t know if this is Masaryk so much, or just European journalist training in general, and I have heard this in various places I have taught, is that in their journalism studies, there often is a strong emphasis on theory, but not so much on practice. I’ve had students talk to me and say, “boy, we really like what you’re teaching us, you’re really showing us how to do stuff,” and they say very often all they hear about is the theory of this, or the theory of communication. I don’t know enough about the Masaryk curriculum, and I’ve been unable to sit in on other professors’ classes because I don’t understand the language, and that’s a difficulty that a Fulbright person coming in without the language skills can have. But I guess that might be a key thing. Our school where I teach back in Phoenix has a strong emphasis on, ‘here’s how you do it.’ We want our students to leave and start on day one in the newsroom, and I’m not sure that’s the case here.

You previously served as a Fulbright Distinguished Chair in Lisbon, Portugal in 2010. Why did you choose this time to do a Fulbright to the Czech Republic?
Actually, it was sort of a late decision to apply. During the summer last year, I had seen two or three emails coming from the ASU Provost office, saying hey, Fulbright deadlines, and I remembered very positively my Lisbon experience. I looked at the catalog, and I particularly looked for situations where somebody with my background would be a reasonable candidate, which very quickly narrowed it down from 160 to five countries. Then I spotted among them the Distinguished Chair in the Czech Republic, and another like that in Jamaica. I thought about applying, went back and forth, talked to my wife, and we decided, why not? Basically I dusted off my Lisbon application, and said this is what I can do, I can talk about social science methods in journalism, and I sent it in. And again, the resonance with the Czech Republic in particular was thanks to my daughter-in-law, who I think so highly of, and I had been here at least once before to visit my son for a few days.

What is the biggest benefit of international education in your opinion?
In my opinion, it gives me so much to bring back to my classroom in Arizona. One thing I’ve learned from a lot of foreign travel and particularly after becoming a professor, is how insular Americans tend to be. Too few of us go out into the world, and see what it’s like, and that leads to many social and political problems in the U.S. My ability to talk about how things are different in other parts of the world, particularly in journalism, where I can talk about how much harder it is for journalists in most other places in the world to do what we do so easily in the U.S., where we have protections, public records laws, and it’s very easy for us; I can help my students appreciate what it’s like elsewhere, which is a good thing. Certainly, professionally, doing this has opened up a lot of opportunity to do workshops. A couple years ago, I took a sabbatical and spent 45 days going around Europe to 11 cities, nine countries, and doing 26 talks or workshops, and all of it was largely because I had met so many people in things like Fulbright. That certainly would not have been possible without the opportunity to be as international as I have been.

What was most rewarding for you during your Fulbright semester?
Still looking at all those things. I guess the key thing is knowing that at least some of the students that I’ve had, their interest in the subject that interests me a lot, this ability to use data journalism- has been sparked. Even among my students who sign up for my classes in Phoenix, I have no expectation that all of them want to become Steve Doig. I always tell them, a newsroom filled with people like me would be horribly inefficient, but on the other hand, you need some people with those kinds of skills, so I’m delighted to see that interest in these skills spreading in places where they are not really well underway. It’s a newer thing here. A lot of Western Europe has adopted it. Eastern Europe is not yet as involved, so that’s in a way a good thing that I could come here. I also have a connection with the Czech Center for Investigative Journalism based in Prague. I hope to continue that, and I know their interest in data will also spread interest.

Do you think your semester here in Brno will effect or influence your teaching back at ASU?
My primary class in the spring is going to be Sports Data Journalism. It definitely won’t be covering the wider range of things we’ve looked at here, but with that said, I will build into my Sports Data class a look at sports that are popular outside of the U.S., like European football. Actually, there’s an interesting cricket database, and certainly there are other sports I know little about, but that I realize are big in other places. That’s one of the points I will try to get across to my American football, basketball, baseball-obsessed students, that there is a larger world of sports out there. The other thing I will be bringing back is also my general enthusiasm for the Fulbright program. I’ve had students who asked me about it, and I’ve encouraged them to apply to be ETAs, and also my faculty members. I’m a big fan of what Fulbright does, and so that enthusiasm is something I bring back to my faculty again.

What does the Fulbright mission mean to you?
To me, it means fitting into this idea of William Fulbright’s that more knowledge about people across national borders is a good thing. It’s a way of helping reduce the misunderstandings that get turned into wars eventually, so the more people you have, particularly those who wind up in policy making positions as their careers go on, is a great thing. My experience with Fulbright is as an American getting a chance to come over here, but I know a huge part of the Fulbright mission is having Czech students and Czech professors go over to spend time in the U.S., to learn about that place too, and I think that’s a huge thing. I know one of my colleagues from Masaryk is going to spend the spring semester at Penn State University at their Journalism School, and I was able to chat with him a bit, because I know people there. It’s good for him, and that very much fits into the larger Fulbright mission of international cooperation and exchange.

You’ve been called a pioneer for the use of computer-assisted data analysis by reporters.
I’m a pioneer in adopting the ideas of even earlier pioneers. I was an early adopter of, for instance Philip Meyer, who wrote a book in 1972 called “Precision Journalism.” His premise was that journalists ought to be using social science methods like statistics and polling to help us do stories better. I was exposed to it at about the time that personal computers were starting to appear. When Phil wrote it ten years earlier, he was kind of too soon, you had to have access to a big university mainframe to do this kind of work. I got my first computer in 1981, an Atari 800, it was like watching paint dry looking at the screen, and it’s amazing what’s been done. Yes, I’m a pioneer in that I started early on it. Part of the reason I got started so early is I was working at the Miami Herald, which was filled with really smart, young, ambitious, reporters, and to stand out in a newsroom like that, you had to have a superpower. There certainly were better writers among my colleagues, and some who were more dogged investigators, and it turned out to be that my superpower is, I can do math! It’s rare in the newsroom. So, I learned that because I enjoyed playing with this computer I bought for home, and I realized I could use this for things at work too. That’s what lead to turn out to be my superpower, my specialty.

And you practice precision journalism. What does that mean?
It gets called different things, it started out being precision journalism, and then next, it was called computer-assisted reporting, and these days the more common term is data journalism. Part of that is the spread of things being done is much wider. When I started, it was analysis, and that’s still my primary ability, taking data, finding patterns in it, so on. These days, it gets into the presentation end of data, doing interactive web graphics, stuff I don’t know how to do. I’m amazed by it, and glad to see smart, young journalists learning to do it.

You were a core member of the reporting team that won the Pulitzer Prize for Public Service in 1993. Can you describe to us the moment you found out you won?
It was funny, I mean, I was gratified. My boss, the top editor, actually pulled me aside and said you know, we heard from the Pulitzer jurors that a key reason that they decided on the Herald project amongst the other obviously worthy things was the analysis that was done. So, I feel like I was a core person. But it’s funny, in newsrooms, there’s not a lot of looking back on your past. By that time, we were moving on to other projects. In fact, by the time we got the announcement for that, we were already underway doing our next thing looking at something in criminal justice in south Florida, and it was like, ‘hey, that’s great, good, back to work.’ You know, drink the champagne, and then go back to work. That’s sort of a journalism trait. I probably didn’t really appreciate it until, say, applying to become the Knight Chair. It was clearly the thing that helped me to be the one chosen, as compared to the three or four other talented, smart journalists who were also being considered, but they didn’t have that Pulitzer thing on their resume. I did, and that clearly made the difference, and frankly, I’m glad it did. I’m happy to be here.

You also spent a year working as a combat correspondent for the U.S. Army during the Vietnam War, what was that like?
I have to thank the Army for doing that. I was in the Army because I had made it through over two years at Dartmouth with absolutely no idea of what I wanted to become. Freshman year, I came in thinking well, I’ll be a doctor, and then freshmen chemistry persuaded me that was never going to happen. After that, I was completely adrift, so I basically wound up out of school, and was immediately drafted, because that’s what was going on at the time. The Army in its wisdom said, okay, you can either be in the infantry for two years, or sign up for three years, and we’ll send you to this information school. I thought well why not, it’d beat carrying a rifle in Vietnam. So, I was sent to the information school for ten weeks, then to Vietnam, and it was while I was in Vietnam- I realized, this journalism thing, I could do that for a living. I got to meet members of the Saigon press core, who were amazing, and I talked with them about how they got into journalism. Many hadn’t actually gone to journalism school. There was a guy from the New York Times who was a French major, something like that. A lot of it is like, if you’re bright enough to do that, you’re bright enough to be a reporter. It was very interesting, I got a chance to see and do a lot of things I wouldn’t have done otherwise when I was 21 or 22 years old. Actually, I was sent my last year to be an instructor at the information school. That was actually my first taste of teaching, which also turned out to be a thing I wound up doing. There were certainly lots of people who have no reason to have enjoyed, or gotten anything good out of being in the Army other than danger, but in my case, I got my profession. I’m proud to have done it, and I’m happy that it worked out that way for me.

How do you remain active in your profession while primarily working as a university professor?
That’s actually one of the advantages of being a professor, the idea that your work isn’t just in the classroom, it needs to be out in the profession, and that you bring back to the classroom the work that you do.  I’m heavily involved with the organization Investigative Reporters and Editors. I spent four years as a member of the board of directors of that organization. I go to the I.R.E. and National Institute for Computer-Assisted Reporting annual meetings. A number of the international trainings I have done have been through that. I’m also involved in the Global Investigative Journalism Network that holds big conferences every few years in various places around the world. I also get with some regularity queries from newsrooms that are trying to do something tricky with data and analysis.

Six years ago, I was invited to be part of a team looking at Medicare fraud in California, and it was actually when I was in Portugal. It’s one of the miracles of this technology, I’m sitting at my apartment in Portugal, and get this email, they say, ‘we need you to look over several million rows of data to see if these patterns are there.’ And I can sit on my Mac, analyze it, and send it back. It was over six months or so, going back and forth with things we were finding, and it was great. I was absolutely a part of the team that looked into it, and helped prove that the things we were told by the whistleblowers inside the organization were true. We could independently confirm it. That won an important prize, and I was happy that after having won things back in the ‘90s, I could still say hey, as recently the 2000’s we got the Polk award, I’m still doing this stuff. I’m always happy to be involved in doing real journalism.

What was it like for you to watch the 2016 Presidential election from outside the U.S. this year?
It was interesting. Like everybody else, I was certainly surprised at the change of it. Election night, I had been invited by the American Center to do a talk about how the press was covering the election, and I did a talk that I think still stands up. I didn’t say absolutely, she’s going to win, but I said it seems to be a strong indication that she would win. But on the other hand, they were saying it’s like 84%, so that means there’s a one in eight chance she won’t win. I think people focus too much on that probability, as if it were saying absolutely she was going to win, and I’ve done enough polling and probability work that I realized that’s not what it means. The results of it were a surprise, and I then spent the next month being kind of the American apologist for the press, doing a dozen interviews with various new organizations or groups. I’ve done a lot of talking about it, because I’m one of the few American reporters in country that everybody can get, so I had to really think a lot about things that were done right and wrong by the press during that.

It’ll be interesting going back. My job will be preparing my students to go out into this new political world, and deal with an administration that is probably going to be very antagonistic to the press. I certainly worry about the social things that can happen, cutting back on women’s rights, talking about trimming Medicare and Obamacare. I see no viable plans that are being offered in place of those things, and the Republicans have spent so much time just saying no to Obama and now that they actually have to govern, it will be interesting to see how are they going to deal with the fact that they can’t blame somebody else anymore. It’s now their ball, so okay, great let’s see what they do with it.

What is your overall impression of life in the Czech Republic?
I’m delighted at how more open and vibrant it is than it was when I was here 17 or so years ago. When we were here, it was a lot closer to the end of communism. The economy back then was still transitioning into the economy that you have now, and all those kinds of things I think make a real difference. Seventeen years ago, going into the grocery store, there was one kind of fruit, one kind of cereal, a very narrow range of choices. Now there’s an American mall kind of thing right down south of the train station, and I’m not saying American malls are good, but it’s an example of the economic growth. There’s a McDonald’s and Starbucks, so yes, American culture has infected everything, but to some degree that’s a sign of a good economy, and people clearly coming from lots of different places around Europe and the world. I think it seems to be a substantially more vibrant culture, and economy than it was when I was here all those years ago.

Is there anything else you’d like to add?
I’m wistful that I only have a little less than four weeks left here. I’m looking forward to having my daughter, her husband, and my three grandsons get a chance to see this place, but then we’re going have to wrap it up and go back. So I’ll be a little sad at that, I would say.

Photo by David Kohout for Aktualne.cz

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