FAQ: Does data journalism subvert the norm of objectivity?

Here are another set of questions from a student as part of the FAQ section – the last one is a goodie.

Question 1: Do you think data journalism can reduce the cost of investigative journalism?

Yes. It reduces the cost of collecting information, certainly: scrapers for example can automate the collection and combination of hundreds of documents; other tools can automate cleaning, combining, comparing or checking information. But it also offers opportunities in reducing the cost of distribution (for example automation and personalisation), collaboration, and even visual treatments.

Question 2: Can data journalism increase citizen’s political participation through their own production and analysis of the data?

It certainly can – the question, however, is whether it will, and how. Certainly I’ve seen anecdotal evidence of individuals engaging with local, national and international politics as a result of being able to explore data or engage with it through interactives. It would be good to see some academically rigorous analysis of this.

Question 3: There are critiques of data journalism claiming that data journalists are literally ‘making’ news stories instead of ‘reporting’ them because they often use a lot of tools to find so-called ‘newsworthy’ elements in datasets, extracting them out and turning them into news. These criticisms points out that data journalism might damage the norm and operation of journalistic objectivity. What do you think of this argument?

I think it’s a laughable critique – firstly it suggests that journalists don’t ‘construct’ news anyway, and anyone who’s worked in a newsroom or looked at research on journalism practice knows that journalists engage in a very active process of news construction.

Finding something newsworthy in raw material (data in this case – but it could just as well be a statement, or report, or footage), choosing an angle, fleshing that out are all standard journalistic practices so data journalism does nothing to change that. No journalist could reasonably argue that they impartially select news from the raw material in front of them.

But secondly, it suggests a concept of objectivity which is worryingly passive: merely observing ‘events’ or statements and describing them. I think journalistic objectivity is rather about an active pursuit of some sort of objective truth (if not necessarily achieving that).

For example, a passive objectivity would see a journalist reporting that the prime minister said “Everyone is better off under this government”. A more active objectivity would test that statement against data, and illustrate that with case studies.

The same applies to events: you can just report what happened, but you can also dig further to see if it has happened before, how often, why, who is responsible, and how it might be avoided or repeated. Analysis and context are important parts of journalism, and both require an active pursuit of information.

Data provides more opportunity for that objectivity – to test claims against facts; or to test the validity of data itself (which is sometimes flawed and misused).

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