How maths and workflows innovate journalism and journalism education

In Hidden Figures actress Taraj Hensen’s character Katherine Johnson attempts to solve a problem. How can Nasa bring a space capsule back to earth at coordinates so it lands in the ocean, where the vessel and occupants can be rescued?

Johnson, and engineer Ted Skopinski work out a few ideas before she settles on an “ancient” approach called Euler’s Method. It’s a branch of maths, calculus.

Whilst the answer to the problem is important, how it’s arrived at is equally significant. It’s about processes and workflows.

At a talk on autonomous A.I systems Professor Jon Platt, Dean of Cardiff School of Technologies, put up this slide to demonstrate how cruise control worked in cars, and that there were analogies for A.I. learning systems. I’ll write more about this later, but for the meantime, the diagram provides a designed workflow, and (innovative) intervention points, appended by calculus equation.

A user can envisage how this process leads to an intended outcome and how insert points prefigure creativity and innovation. As Professor Plat states, the design workflow provides the possibility to use simple electronics or computer algorithms. When Nasa needed to bring its stricken space craft home in Apollo 13 engineers innovated through a procedure to fashion a carbon dioxide filter from raw material the astronauts had in their module.

Procedure and workflows are the constant cross hair for mathematicians and engineers. When my son was doing his GCSEs he showed a not uncommon trait when it comes to maths calculations. He could figure out the answer, but could rarely show the detailed first principles or workflow he used to attain this.

There were two broad issues I required to help Jonny. Firstly, he had to see his work as a sequence of steps scaffolded on one another towards a larger picture. Each step worked to give him a more comprehensive understanding of the problem and would maximise his marks and secondly I needed to find a way of helping him. My degree was in Applied Chemistry, so calculus was something I was very familiar with, but that was no guarantee he’d get it. When you don’t get something there’s often a state of mind (Johari’s window) that you need to overcome before active learning appears.

Extensive research shows that the way a young adolescent rationalise information varies widely to adults. It’s related to the development of their prefrontal cortex, the seat of complex cognitive behavior, social behaviour and decision making. Professor Sarah-Jayne Blake’s Inventing Ourselves: The Secret Life of the Teenage Brain points to how adolescents are prone to risk. Why for instance should they learn a system, read a course handbook or a book when there are available shortcuts. I’ve used this understanding in developing products and in teaching, which I’ll explain in more depth in another post.

Whether you’re a scientist, chef or work in the media, systemised procedures exist. In journalism by tradition it tends to be implicit. You may be told what to do which is internalised and naturalised. Assumptions become propositions that turn into paradigms that mature as conventions, and even boldy and bogusly “rules”. For contemporary journalism to thrive at problem-solving I and several industry figures I’ve spoken to, argue this traditional approach could do with changing.

Problem solving

Journalism’s other achilles is the assumption that outcomes are fixed. That is to say 2x2=4. Yet journalism, as part of the social sciences relies on a variable that calculus is unfamiliar with — society and individual’s interpretation.

Whether you’re in Timbuktu or Toronto, 2x2=4. In media, not so. Society and culture influence the results. Hence take this an example. If you work in photography or the moving image, you may be accustomed to the rule of thirds. It states a subject be placed in the third part of the screen for aesthetic value. But in truth it’s no more a rule than what side of the bed you get up from in the morning. It’s a framework, a guideline for achieving appealing photographs. Yet it depends on the culture and society. In China, where Edo paintings dominated for millenia, their aesthetic for composition evolves around balance and symmetry which found itself into film making. Japanese director Yasujirō Ozu centred his subjects.

Comprehending processes and workflows is a skill in problem solving, but also crucially it provides entry points for innovation, a word that until the 18th century was an insult. Today, innovation has come to be associated with tech and how inventions are commercialised for market. If you can design a workflow its nodes can be used as anchors for innovation.

In their highly successful book Building and Agile Business Through Digital Transformation, authors Neil Perkin and Peter Abraham state a new problem that’s descended on all industries:

We are at a watershed moment for organisational strategy. One where attachments to traditional deeply ingrained approaches that work to extract maximum value from sustainable competitive advantage for as long as possible even when the competitive advantages is in decline is becoming a significant barrier to progress. One where outmoded , inflexible, slow moving systems, strategies and processes that are optimised over time around sustainable advantages becoming a liability.

Processes that we’ve used in journalism since the 1950s, and methods of knowledge exchange thus require renewed attention. In design thinking waterfall methods can become agile. Tried and tested methods sit alongside innovatory approaches. Problem-solving that is collaborative is disconsonatly as valuable as unitary approaches. Journalism, becomes problem solving, and the storytelling is dependent on the culture and societies’ ways of accessing stories which is mutable.

Innovation in Journalism

Aside from an instructional approach, gamification should be welcome. Here’s an outline to a case study for sharing knowledge with students who want to become broadcast and TV journalism to Master students.

  1. Map out the objective using diagrams. Note the broadcast package and traditional journalism skills is but one of several new skills.
  2. Provide a skeletal framework, for which cohorts will provide later detail into the efficiency of the procedure or otherwise multiple outcomes. This strengthens memory.
  3. Gamify the approach, by composing teams and letting them compete against each other. Set up a process for arbitration in disputes which everyone signs up to. Introduce a reward system. This incentivises cohorts.
  4. Allow cohorts to self manage and adopt a wisdom of crowds approach. Help student review their own mistakes and how they will overcome them. This helps with self sufficiency.
  5. Build in a contingency for failure. It’s at the root of learning, and experimenting. Let cohorts own this state of feeling and how they might overcome it and build resilience.
  6. Build in repetition cycles. Learning is about repetition.
  7. Change the landscape when they become familiar. Let them assess the differences.
  8. Make it fun. Gamify lectures. The release of happy hormones increases learning capacity. I use puzzles and patterning.
  9. Build theory from their practice and compare it to different cultural systems and literature. Remember there is no correct way.
  10. Help bridge the understanding that innovation in journalism is about storytelling and links engineering, arts, enterprise, science, history, philosophy, literature and humanities. The future is about solving problems, delivering innovative products e.g. reports and equipping students to work in efficient teams. Team players with wide skills and characteristics that enable them to work across systems and cultures.

Case Study

Put together a 20-minute news bulletin from scratch after 9 contact days of professional tuition and practising bulletins. You may not know anything about news production, but on the 12th of December you have to produce a professional show. You will focus largely on domestic issues and you have three hours to turn around the news for the first bulletin at 12.30, and then another at 3.30.

Students will self organise, with assistance from Lecturers

Sample of comments from the students after the main show. They fed back a one minute vlog about the experience.

Skills, the students identify
* firmness and calmness, and good judgement.
* Integrity, and the ability to react swiftly to events

24 hours after her final broadcast as news editor, Carolina finds a place to relax and reflect on her role as editor. She’s joined by by Evie, who lets mom know, via skype, how proud she is of her team and her own individual efforts.


News presenter/journalist, Fan. Some of the core skills needed include:
* Calmness under pressure.
* Focus, and reading an autocue.


Reporters and videojournalists: Minghao, Coralie,

Some of the core skills needed include:
* Ability to turn a story around from raw unconnected data.
* Technical skills in camera and editing, as well as within the story construct.


Dr David Dunkley Gyimah is a Knight Batten winner for innovation in Journalism — the first Brit to win this award. He’s been a journalist for thirty years e.g. BBC and Channel 4 News and has taught for fifteen, more recently setting up the journalism LAB. He’s a regular juror for the RTS Awards and publishes

Top Writer & Creative Technologist, Int. Award Winner. Cinemajournalist. Cardiff Uni @jomec. PhD (Dublin). Visiting Prof UBC, Ex BBC/C4News. Apple profiled.