DATA JOURNALISM AND THE QUESTION OF ETHICS: GETTING THE FIGURES AND FACTS RIGHT.

DATA JOURNALISM AND THE QUESTION OF ETHICS: GETTING THE FIGURES AND FACTS RIGHT.

By

Oliver Uja

Introduction

Journalism involves gathering, processing and dissemination of information that is of great value and to do this task successfully they must understand the complexities and changing media environment in this era of “information asymmetry”. According to Tom Fries of Bertelsmann Foundation information asymmetry is “the inability to take in and process information with the speed and volume that it comes to us”. Journalism has through the year strived to adapt to this changing environment and Computer Assisted Reporting (CAR) was first used by the Columbia Broadcasting Service (CBS) in the 1952 during the American Presidential elections to predict trends and voting pattern. Investigative journalism which developed in the 1960s became notable for digging deep into public record and using scientific methods to analyse data and data bases with the main aim “to reveal trends debunk popular knowledge and reveal injustices perpetrated by public authorities and big corporations”. In 1970 Precision Journalism came on board and it emphasizes the use of social and behavioural science research methods to journalism practices hence professionals in other fields were encouraged to train and practice journalism.

In this era of information asymmetry large data must be broken down and presented in a way that makes for quick comprehension and better understanding of the various perspective and implications. Cesar Viana explains that this involves “… including more literature, multi-dimensional story telling, enabling  readers to explore the sources underlying the news and encouraging them to participate in the process of creating and evaluating stories”. Data journalism is the use of data to create a story that is very compelling, impactful and vivid. There is no standard definition but the term is very broad and relates to large data use and analysis using the latest technology can offer in writing a story.

However, it is often believed that figures do not lie but that is as far as for people who are not so numerate because it is much easier to deceive or arrive at false conclusions through the manipulation of figures. While conscientious and sincere use of data by journalists can lead to incontrovertible stories and mind bugling revelations, it can be an easy way to also perpetrate unethical practices of breaking the code of ethics of journalism. The job of the journalist is that of fact elucidation and interpretation, as the case may be, hence understanding the techniques and elements of data journalism will enhance the quality of stories while also making it easier to understand when data are been ‘cooked’ or erroneously applied.

Sources of Data

Journalism is all about facts – data, figures, information and sources of the information are very central in the work of a journalist. In the world today, data is at many people’s finger tips – tablets, smart phones, Ipads and other contrivances. Finding stories that will make impact in this deluge of data is the major task of the data journalist. The result of Joint Admissions and Matriculation Board’s (JAMB), Unified Tertiary Matriculation Examination (UTMB), Police recruitment exercise, The National Teams’ World Cup qualification matches, Polio Vaccination and Eradication Programme for instance are all important issues which affects the people and for which the job of the data journalist is to bring all the perspectives and implications in such a way that it will be meaningfull to them. Big stories are increasingly becoming more in the in data than in the usual press statements, PR Releases and news interviews.

According to Bella Hurrell and Andrew Leimdorfer of the BBC “… engaging visualizations of the right data can be used to give a better understanding of an issue or story and we frequently use this approach in our story-telling at the BBC. Heat-mapping data over time to give clear view of change is over technique used …” This shows the power of graphics in telling a story especially one that has to do with data and record over time.

As more and more data are put out, so also tools, application software and methods of processing or analysing these data are developed and journalists avail themselves with these appropriate them to be effective. Excel and Google Doc are basic spreadsheet applications common in analysis and info graphics. Also, Adobe Suite’s after effects, Illustrator, Photoshop and Flash are very popular depending on the nature of work. These are some of the softwares and tools deployed in the production of the beautifully illustrated and analytical stories people read today. In a football match, for example, data are broken down to even the distance covered by each player for the number of minutes such player played and even the number of completed and uncompleted passes by the team. The software presents the raw data, but a knowledgeable and experienced sports reporter brings out the full analysis and story.

Use of Data for Deception

Hutchinson and Warren describes deception as “changing information, and it is to the definitions of data, information and knowledge”. Deception can be in a system form which implies that the means of getting the data had been compromised to achieve a predetermined data or end. A well harnessed, applied and analysed data is a very effective way of arriving at impeccable conclusions. However, data can also be a viable way of deception and a means of perpetration of unethical practices. Some of this subtle means of using data wrongly to achieve a motive are:

  1. Non – representative samples where the whole samples are too small or two large or not randomly chosen (Convenience sample or purposely chosen wrong).

  2. Generalizing to the wrong population where sample is drawn from a different population than the result imply.

  3. Comparing apples and oranges where groups being compared are different ab initio and difference is due to something other than the results imply.

      iv.    Survey bias where the leading questions results to a specific answer.

Deceptive charts and graphs are means of misinformation which people find difficult to detect often people gloss over since they hardly pay close attention for scrutiny.

The Place of Ethics

The propriety or otherwise of a professional conduct is regarded as the ethics. It is a moral compass often codified and signed up to by a professional body to guide members. The Code of Ethics for Nigeria Journalists by Nigerian Press Organisation states that “An ethical code is without doubt a sine qua non in any profession. Journalism today faces an increasing need for critical reporting, accuracy, fairness and objectivity”. The Bloomberg in its guide The Bloomberg Way states that “when exposing the wrongdoing of others, we should be above reproach. The greater the story’s impact, the greater our obligation to withstand the most exacting scrutiny”. This underscores the importance of professional ethics and code of conduct. Adherence to professional ethics in journalism cannot be over emphasized in view of the important role of journalism in society. If the people know that the information or stories they are getting does not conform to the highest ethical standard, crisis of confidence and apathy sets in and this undermines the core functions of the media.

Getting the Facts and Figures Right

Working with data to get the final story is not always a simple task but for data journalist to land an impactful story, data should not be taken at face value. It is no longer enough to write stories from releases and press statements from organisations. Journalists are more interested in the annual balance sheets from where follow up stories are written. It is not the duty of the journalist in this regard to produce the data but to subject it to appropriate scrutiny to ensure integrity of the stories.

Professor Gerd Gigerenzer points out that “better tools will not led to better journalism if they are not used with insight”. Therefore, a journalist does not need to be a Statistician or Mathematician to do very well or perform effectively. However, data Journalists ask three questions that is central in getting great stories done, namely: How was the data collected? What is there to learn? How reliable is the information?

Conclusion

The high turnover of data and amount of data in public domain requires journalists that can mine, process and put out stories that not only have impact but conforms to the highest ethical standard. Journalism and The Press can only perform its functions adequately in this era of information technology by adapting to new ways or adjusting and improving on its methods. Data journalism is a respond to this ever changing technology and media landscape.

References

Tom Fries., “A Remedy for information Asymmetry”, in Data Journalism Hand Book. (www.datajournalismhandbook.org) Accessed 04/05/16

Cesar Viana., “Adapting to changes in our information Environment” in Data Journalism Handbook.  Published or from above www?

Bella Hurrel., et al, “Data Journalism at the BBC” in Data Journalism Handbook.

Published or from above www?

Hutchinson W., et al “The use of Deception in Systems (www.ceur – ws.org/vol – 72) Accessed 04/05/16

Statistical Deception – (Is it by) David Michael Burrow

(www.davidburrow.com) Accessed 04/05/16

The Bloomberg Way – A Guide for Reporters and Editors. Matthew Winkler et al  (ed) 2014

Philosophical Issues in Journalism, Elliot D. Cohen (ed), Oxford University Press, 1992

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