This latest post in the FAQ series answers questions posed by a student in Belgium regarding ethics and data journalism.
Q: Do ethical issues in the practice of computational journalism differ from those of “traditional” journalism?
No, I don’t think they do particularly – any more than ethics in journalism differ from ethics in life in general. However, as in journalism versus life, there are areas which attract more attention because they are the places we find the most conflict between different ethical demands.
For example, the tension between public interest and an individual’s right to privacy is a general ethical issue in journalism but which has particular salience in data journalism, when you’re dealing with data which names individuals.
Q: Do you think that the harvesting, processing and dissemination of information through databases have become a particular ethical issue in this context?
Ah! I was one step ahead of you! As I say: yes. And we have to remember that news organisations themselves also harvest user information too, so one ethical issue is what they do with that.
Q: Do interactions between information and algorithms raise new ethical questions?
I think they raise the same ethical questions as all editorial choices do. We have to remember that algorithms are created by humans, ultimately. Google and Facebook’s algorithms both make an editorial choice to prioritise fresh content in some way (alongside other factors), just as news websites do.
So we have to apply the same ethical frameworks as we do to gatekeeping in publishing: how do we balance the need for diversity of voices with the need to report in a timely fashion and engage readers with current affairs?
We have to remember that journalism has always had algorithms: processes used to locate and access sources which research has shown come with their own biases. It’s good to see that in some ways we are being forced to reflect more on those processes when they become encoded programmatically.
Q: Should current codes of journalistic ethics integrate a technological dimension? Or are they sufficient?
I think your question suggests ethics as some sort of prescriptive code that is etched in stone.
I don’t share that image of ethics. The public versus private dimension is a good illustration of that. You can’t say “Journalism ethics says you can never invade someone’s private life” because there’s a consideration of public interest to include.
There are different schools of ethics to consider here: there is the school which is about your own practice (‘virtue ethics’); the school which is about what causes least harm (‘teleological ethics’); and the school which is about rights and duties (‘deontological ethics’).
As a journalist we negotiate all three.
So in that sense, ethics already addresses ‘technological’ practice (and all journalism is technological anyway – the alphabet is a technology).
But ethics is only sufficient as long as we get the opportunity to apply those principles and make an informed judgement.
Having codes which outline judgements that have already had to be made does help inform further judgements. So we should always be seeking to add to those.
Q: Which skills do you think are more important: technical or mathematical ones?
I think it depends on the story and the audience – in other words, what you’re trying to achieve. Technical and mathematical skills can both help you get the story, understand it, and communicate it. ‘Technical’ is quite a broad term, too.
I don’t think you can say that everyone must learn X, Y or Z. Ultimately you need the skills to do your job: for some that means being able to look at data and not be misled. There’s been some very poor health and science reporting in the last few decades which has fallen short of the numeracy we should expect from those people. And the more sectors of society rely on data, the more reporters will need to be able to scrutinise that.
Equally there are stories which benefit from a technical treatment which personalises it for the user, or makes it more interactive. And there are stories which we cannot get without knowing a bit of programming. And there are publishing models which rely on journalists being able to structure the data behind their stories.
Learning any of those skills for the sake of it is ultimately not going to be rewarding for anyone. But pretending that you can get by without particular skills when it’s becoming increasingly to – well that’s when you need to be sceptical of your own assumptions.