Radius Reader: Data ethics, net cash & robot reporters


by Margaret Wright

Interesting perspective on our Tuesday post about ethics from reader Madeleine Carey, who has a science background:

“The increase in ‘data journalism’ masquerading as science over the past few years concerns me. The professions of science and journalism are both governed by rigorous, peer-enforced, codes of ethics, but unfettered access to big data seems to be putting those ethics at risk.”

Economist/journalist Michael Mandel expands on her point in this piece from Quartz: “Making sense out of raw data requires more analytic firepower and more willingness to do independent research than journalists have traditionally been comfortable with. But it also requires a new set of ethics about how to responsibly use data. That conversation hasn’t started yet.”

Policing & Criminal Reform

As our APD Files project fundraiser launched, this item began circulating re: the depth of the military surplus pipeline to local law enforcement. Highly recommended: ProPublica’s compilation of “The Best Reporting on Federal Push to Militarize Police.”

An issue exposed by the Omaha Harold-Tribune has had “dramatic” consequences in Nebraska. “The state had improperly cut years off the sentences of at least 200 prisoners; many had already been released, and others were set for early release. … State officials would later revise the total to a whopping 873 prisoners, 306 of whom had already been released.”

It should be pointed out that due to outdated tech infrastructure, New Mexico also sees improper releases of inmates (along with attendant lawsuits).

Net Neutrality

After a record-breaking number of public comments was submitted to the FCC, NPR outlined what’s next in federal decision-making over an open Internet.

Vox Media’s The Verge looked at which localities were most active during the public comment phase + created a tool that let’s you see how your zip code compared to others.

And it sure looks like money talks in the congressional debate over the issue.

#OpenGov & Transparency

A major convening of journalists and editors in Chicago this week took the Obama administration to task over its “lack of access and transparency,” which the group argued undermines press freedom and creates ripple effects across all levels of government.

Problems with government agency compliance with public records laws aren’t isolated to New Mexico. An audit in Rhode Island uncovered “a culture of indifference—if not outright hostility—to the public’s right to know.”

The U.S. House of Representatives passed a bill “that would exempt huge numbers of not-so-small businesses from an important transparency requirement.”

Speaking of corporate transparency, a gas company in Alabama has sued a local news outlet in an “attempt to stop the Montgomery Advertiser from publishing or writing about the company’s document that outlines a plan to ensure the safety of gas pipes.”

Journalism & Technology

Facebooks says it’s making adjustments to users’ homepage feeds so they more accurately reflect current events, but the changes still depend on folks actively engaging with news postings.

Last but certainly not least: Is the work of journalists on the verge of being outsourced to robots? A pithy response to the concept came from Irish journalist Andrea Vance, who snarked on Twitter, “Yeah, but how long before the algorithms get sick of the pay and go into PR?”

  • purejuice

    On ethics for data reporting, thank you for the link to the Quartz piece. Many of the reporters I know — boomers — do have a serious education deficit as the author suggests. Many of us got perfect scores on the verbal part of the SAT and zero on the math part. One reason we become writers is many of us are literally innumerate.
    As for requiring graduate degrees in the ethics of data mining, I submit the author may be indulging in the traditional contempt academics have for reporters. Some of it is well-deserved. And some of it is not. I once had a long lunch with the veteran reporter Ron Rosenbaum, who told me during his 10 years of research on the book, Explaining Hitler, as a reporter he regularly had to sit through half an hour of obloquy from academics who knew far less than he and were considerably more prejudiced (the book is about different methods, theories of history, or systems of ethics of accounting for what Hitler represents). Making my way as a reporter into the scholarly professional organization of genocide scholars, I found much the same; historians too have their political agendas.
    I have to say, the real reporters I know — both of my age and in generations younger — are well aware of the manipulation of empirical data, whether or not they can add two and two. No reporter I know — or am friends with — uses a statistic without identifying its source and determining how biassed that source might be — for example, did this data analysis come from the libertarian Cato Institute, or from university research funded by the industry which is the subject of the research?
    While I am trying to understand the new economist Pikelly, one of the things he addresses is the history of how economists use spurious data.
    Finally, as newspapers and digital startups try to do more with less, data-mining journalism seems like a cost-effective way of producing authoritative enterprise journalism. One nerd cleaning and scraping data = three Pulitzer-Prize-winning stories a year for a three-person operation. Daniel Gilbert, the young reporter who won the 2010 Pulitzer for community journalism via CAD, donated his prize money to a fund to teach rural journalists computer-assisted reporting. I have to say it is my observation that real reporters are less in need of training in the daily ethical use of empirical methods than are many historians and economists.

    • http://twitter.com/joecardillo Joe Cardillo

      That’s an interesting point about the relationships between journalism and academics. One of the things that’s essential to deeply understanding an issue/topic is to dig into structure vs. content - depending on the field you’re in, this gets labeled as form v. function, aesthetics vs. substance, etc…

      I don’t know that requiring certification / graduate degrees is going to make much of a difference, but I do think there needs to be an open conversation about data mining analysis and ethics. Mostly, I think journalism is struggling with the transition to opening the doors and showing how we actually work. Whether we like it or not the web / globalization has thrown open the doors to look at the skeleton, and in many cases it’s still not pretty.

  • purejuice

    purejuice = me, Jeannette Smyth, i don’t seem to be able to sign in with my real name.