Ethics in data journalism
The Ethical Journalism Network has developed a course to help data journalists critically reflect on ethical challenges throughout each stage in the reporting process.
The ethical principles of transparency, accuracy, fairness, humanity and impartiality should apply to all forms of journalism and yet become more challenging in a digital and globalized world. Data Journalism requires more self-scrutiny because the journey towards story-telling is more complex and its success requires a process that relies presenting information and data accurately, clearly and fairly, at all stages. At each stage, the data journalist must keep the standard ethical questions at the forefront: Is this accurate? Am I respecting individual privacy? Have I produced a fair and unbiased representation of the data and is it fair to data source? Does my audience understand what I have done?
This course will look at the following stages of data journalism, focusing on particular ethical challenges that might come with producing a piece of work derived and based on data. It will provide data journalists with the tools to begin to critically reflect on their practice, in particular when thinking about data sources, collection, analysis and visualization of the data. It will treat data journalism, not as a static field in its own right, but as journalism that comes with its own set of ethical considerations and challenges.
There are two key forms of data journalism:
- Data-led story
- A story that is born out of data
Acquisition and sources
- How do you get the data? Was it freely published? Was it acquired through a leak? Are you aware of the potential consequences?
- What are the ethics of acquiring your data? Do you have to steal it, bribe someone, does it breach copyright? Who are your data sources? How would you offer protection for your sources?
- Did you acquire data via an access to information act for example? Or did you write a piece of code a ‘bot’ that scours part of the internet vacuuming up all your software can find? And if you write code does it include your name and contact details so the website operator can see who is seeking information? Are you being transparent? At what point do we have to be transparent about how you will use your data?
- Can you justify your choices? Why have you decided to acquire this?
Data cleaning, management and analysis
- Do you understand the data? The accuracy of your reporting will depend on your full understanding of it. Is it up to date? Has it already been processed? Is it raw or unstructured?
- Is your data about people? If it is, do the individuals concerned need their privacy protecting?
- Is it factual? Or is it opinion that might change? If it is response to questions or surveys, did the respondents tell the truth or did they provide an answer that the interviewer might want to hear? Did they consent for the data to be used for journalism?
- How good are your data processing skills? Can you enter numbers into a spreadsheet and are you comfortable with the analytical tools in your spreadsheet software? Is your data raw with inconsistencies in it and can you design data processing rules that are fair, accurate and transparent to clean the data?
- Are your conclusions safely drawn from the data, or they an artefact of the way you processed it?
- Have you thought about the in-built biases within the data sets you are using and how to avoid these being transferred with your use of the data?
- What are you going to publish? How will you let your audience know that this data and your journalism can be trusted? What do you need to say about the source of the data? What will you put on the web to accompany your data? Raw data? Your analysis spreadsheets? How transparent should you be? How do you publish data that is acquired from leaks?
- Ownership: Who does the data belong to? Is it public? Do you need to tell the owner that you are using their data?
Presentation and audiences
- How should you present your findings? Are you using graphs and are they constructed clearly and fairly? Does your choice of language reflect the appropriate level of confidence in your data and your analysis? Have you explained your sources? Have you been clear where AI has been used? Have you offered a right to reply? How do you avoid manipulation of data merely to produce attention-grabbing headlines?
Coordination and collaboration
- Cross-border investigative networks and transnational collaborations
- Open data and open source coding practices
- Data journalism and gender
Watch Aidan White talk about the 5 core values of ethical journalism
We also recommend checking out the European Journalism Center’s forum, where you can find advice on data journalis, from their community.
Bios and Quotes from the Author and Contributors to the Course:
Ethical Journalism Network
The Ethical Journalism Network aims to strengthen the craft of journalism and to promote for the public benefit high ethical standards in journalism, based on principles of truth and accuracy, independence, fairness and impartiality, humanity and accountability by the provision of education and training of journalists and the publication of useful research.
Related resources from the Ethical Journalism Network
- Roundtable discussion focuses on copyright challenges, solutions in Africa: https://ethicaljournalismnetwork.org/copyright-challenges-solutions-africa
- African journalism and the ethics of authors’ rights: https://ethicaljournalismnetwork.org/resources/publications/trust-ethical-journalism/african-journalism-ethics-authors-rights
- The Ethical Journalist’s Toolkit: https://thomsonfoundation.edcastcloud.com/learn/the-ethical-journalist-s-toolkit-self-paced-available-until-april-2018
- For more information about the EJN’s work in Africa see: https://ethicaljournalismnetwork.org/regions/africa
Partners for the Project
Thomson Foundation has been helping raise standards of journalism and communication around the globe through training, consultancy and strategic advice since 1962. With the launch of Journalism Now in November 2018, Thomson Foundation has extended its ability to engage with journalists using online tools offering online training to thousands of journalists.
Journalism Now is a series of online interactive courses designed and led by industry experts and partners like the Ethical Journalism Network providing the latest in digital and multimedia skills. The global learning environment gives exclusive access to live training and mentoring sessions, run by leading journalists, and a unique knowledge-sharing platform.
Our online portal allows alumni and all course participants to interact and share new knowledge and information with our experts and fellow journalists.
Produced by Thomson Foundation
All rights reserved. Republished with permission.