Ethical questions in data journalism and the power of online discussion

David Craig, Stan Ketterer and Mohammad Yousuf at Data Driven Journalism: “One common element uniting data journalism projects, across different stories and locations, is the ethical challenges they present.

As scholars and practitioners of data journalism have pointed out, main issues include flawed datamisrepresentation from a lack of context, and privacy concerns. Contributors have discussed the ethics of data journalism on this site in posts about topics such as the use of pervasive datatransparency about editorial processes in computational journalism, and best practices for doing data journalism ethically.

Our research project looked at similar ethical challenges by examining journalists’ discussion of the controversial handling of publicly accessible gun permit data in two communities in the United States. The cases are not new now, but the issues they raise persist and point to opportunities – both to learn from online discussion of ethical issues and to ask a wide range of ethical questions about data journalism

The cases

Less than two weeks after the 2012 shooting deaths of 20 children and six staff members at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, a journalist at The Journal News in White Plains, New York, wrote a story about the possible expansion of publicly accessible gun permit data. The article was accompanied by three online maps with the locations of gun permit holders. The clickable maps of a two-county area in the New York suburbs also included the names and addresses of the gun permit holders. The detailed maps with personal information prompted a public outcry both locally and nationally, mainly involving privacy and safety concerns, and were subsequently taken down.

Although the 2012 case prompted the greatest attention, another New York newspaper reporter’s Freedom of Information request for a gun permit database for three counties sparked an earlier public outcry in 2008. The Glen Falls Post-Star’s editor published an editorial in response. “We here at The Post-Star find ourselves in the unusual position of responding to the concerns of our readers about something that has not even been published in our newspaper or Web site,” the editorial began. The editor said the request “drew great concern from members of gun clubs and people with gun permits in general, a concern we totally understand.”

Both of these cases prompted discussion among journalists, including participants in NICAR-L, the listserv of the National Institute for Computer-Assisted Reporting, whose subscribers include data journalists from major news organizations in the United States and around the world. Our study examined the content of three discussion threads with a total of 119 posts that focused mainly on ethical issues.

Key ethical issues

Several broad ethical issues, and specific themes related to those issues, appeared in the discussion.

1. Freedom versus responsibility and journalistic purpose..

2. Privacy and verification..

3. Consequences..


See also: David Craig, Stan Ketterer and Mohammad Yousuf, “To Post or Not to Post: Online Discussion of Gun Permit Mapping and the Development of Ethical Standards in Data Journalism,” Journalism & Mass Communication Quarterly