Data-driven ethics: Tricky questions buried in the numbers

Expert data journalists emphasized the basic ethical principles of accuracy, fairness and inclusion when working on investigations.

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  1. What ethical responsibilities do data journalists have to the public? How can journalists navigate common ethical issues in the Internet era? What role do ethics play in each stage of the investigation and publishing process? 

    Three seasoned data journalists and one civil rights lawyer dug into the ethical issues that challenge the field at the Investigative Reporters & Editors Conference (#IRE14) June 26 in San Francisco. 
  2. Moderator Sally Lehrman (@journethics), senior fellow in journalism ethics at the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics at Santa Clara University, began by encouraging the recognition of ethical dilemmas at every stage of data journalism – from collecting and analyzing data to publishing the final story. "In today's environment, journalists have more tools to gather and disseminate data quickly," Lehrman said. "And yet the Internet never forgets. How do our ethical responsibilities change as a result?"

    Jennifer LaFleur (@j_la28), senior editor for data journalism at the Center for Investigative Reporting, emphasized that accuracy is key. She spoke about knowing your data, paying keen attention to where your data comes from and keeping in mind what may be missing and why.
  3. Ricardo Sandoval-Palos (@Ricsand), senior editor at NPR’s Morning Edition,  urged  participants to be "the harshest in-house critic of your work" and to always question your assumptions and hypotheses. Sandoval-Palos's pro tip: Ask a neutral third party for insight and perspective. 
  4. Chrys Wu (@MacDiva), developer advocate at the New York Times, introduced the thought that journalists have a responsibility to present the data in a way that people can understand and that is not misleading. In the age of instant information, she said, journalists carry an ethical obligation to present data clearly and in context. Simple charts and infographics only offer a snapshot of the data, so including appropriate background and guides to interpret the information are essential.
  5. Ethical data journalism also requires careful thinking about biases that may be built into the original data and its interpretation, the panel said. Inherent unconscious biases can affect decision-making, skew interpretation and create blind spots in data collection, analysis and its reception by the public. Eva Jefferson Paterson (@evapaterson), president of the Equal Justice Society, presented studies that have found unconscious bias affects what we notice, our interpretations and our decisions. Data, like people, can be biased and does not exist outside of its social context. 
  6. All humans inherently have biases, Paterson explained, no matter how hard we try to be neutral. The first step is to develop an awareness of our biases. Then, the panel said, journalists can make a commitment to ethical work by knowing one's limitations and the limitations of the data. 
  7. Seek to understand the social context surrounding your data, urged Sandoval-Palos. Overall, he said, attendees should use their human judgment and ask the difficult ethical questions. Considerations include: "Is it useful, informative, important?" "Is it necessary?" "Does it put any involved parties in danger?"
  8. Audience members were able to ask the panelists difficult ethical questions, share stories of personal ethical dilemmas and difficulties, and offer their own reflections. Connections were made and ideas were spread - all in the hopes of developing a more ethical profession and a more ethical world. 
  9. Join the conversation on journalism ethics! 
    Twitter: @journethics 
    Presentation slides: scu.edu/ethics
    Panel website: t.co/ovWLoL9xOv

    Storify compiled and written by Jaclyn Rubbo - Markkula Center for Applied Ethics
    For more on the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics visit scu.edu/ethics
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