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One step ahead: preparing reporters before they’re targeted by disinformation and online harassment campaigns

Photo by Calle Macarone on Unsplash

In his 15-year career as a reporter, Eric Litke has come to expect a certain number of angry emails and social media messages from people who are incensed by his stories. 

“That always comes with the trade,” he said. 

But since he started fact-checking for USA TODAY and PolitiFact Wisconsin — a partnership between the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel and the nonprofit organization PolitiFact — he’s sensed a shift in the public perception of his work. He’s always shared the stories he’s most proud of on his social media accounts, but the abusive messages he receives have become more personal over the past three years, and increasingly come from people in his own orbit. 

Despite striving for objectivity, his fact-checks — some of which help Facebook moderate its content — seem to prompt irrational and highly emotional reactions. He recently had a longtime friend tell him on Facebook that he “used to do work that mattered.” 

“The tenor of the comments in response to that is very different when I’m doing something investigative versus when I’m doing something in the fact-checking role,” Litke said. “Now there’s this instinctual reaction where people are not interested in critically engaging with the arguments and the data and the critical thinking behind it. They’re just looking at, ‘OK, you rated this guy in this way, therefore you are scum of the earth, or you’re a brilliant person to be commended,’ purely based on where we landed.” 

Even worse, he received a vaguely threatening email from a stranger that he and his editors decided was serious enough to alert the police. 

“That hasn’t come up in my career before,” he said. “It’s kind of an indicator of where things are at, that people are willing to send off emails that reach that extreme point where you kind of go, ‘I don’t really think you’re going to show up at my house, but we’re far enough over the line that we should probably notify some people.’”

The current hostile climate for reporters causes one to consider previously far-fetched possibilities: physical threats, doxxing, digital privacy and security breaches, and malicious manipulation of photos from their social media accounts. Such attacks can represent real-life threats to reporters’ safety, limit free expression, and even force journalists to leave the industry entirely. 

As objective truth has come under assault in online spaces, so have reporters — who should probably think twice about their digital security. 

II. ‘Inextricably linked’: Disinformation and online harassment 

Online harassment is when an individual or group targets somebody else in a severe, pervasive and harmful way. It’s an umbrella term that includes several types of tactics, including hate speech, sexual harassment, hacking and doxxing — which means spreading someone’s personal information online.

Female reporters disproportionately bear the brunt of these attacks. A recent report from the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) and the International Center for Journalists declared online harassment as the “new front line for women journalists.” In a global survey of more than 700 women in journalism, 73% said they had experienced some form of online violence. 

The respondents said they received threats of sexual assault and physical violence, digital security attacks, doctored and sexually explicit photos of themselves, abusive and unwanted messages, attempts to undermine their personal reputations and professional credibility, and financial threats. About two-fifths said their attacks were linked to orchestrated disinformation campaigns.

Online harassment is often “inextricably linked” with disinformation campaigns, which seek to discredit newspapers and other democratic institutions, but can also be directed at individual reporters, said Nora Benavidez, a First Amendment and voting rights advocate with PEN America, which offers online abuse defense trainings to reporters and newsrooms across the country. 

“These are issues that permeate online and are used as weapons in maybe distinct ways, but their tactic writ large is to constantly sow doubt, to discredit the narratives that people see,” she said. 

In both cases, the attacks can be highly coordinated, despite looking as if the victim is being bombarded at random. (The Media Manipulation Casebook is a collection of in-depth investigations that show a high level of coordination in online harassment and disinformation campaigns, including medical misinformation about COVID-19 that started metastasizing in online Black communities early in the pandemic.)

“The accurate information they’re trying to discredit comes from reputable sources. In order to do that, you have to prove that those professional reputable sources aren’t reliable — you have to discredit, intimidate and silence the reporters behind the accurate, professionally produced information that you want to undermine or dilute.”

Viktorya Vilk, PEN America

“I think of online harassment and disinformation as something like two sides of the same coin, or maybe two prongs of the same spear, right?” said Viktorya Vilk, the director of digital safety and free expression programs at PEN America. “The goal in both cases is to spread disinformation or inaccurate information to pollute the larger landscape. The accurate information they’re trying to discredit comes from reputable sources. In order to do that, you have to prove that those professional reputable sources aren’t reliable — you have to discredit, intimidate and silence the reporters behind the accurate, professionally produced information that you want to undermine or dilute.”

But that doesn’t mean the two issues always go hand-in-hand. Not all online harassment is part of a campaign; sometimes it’s truly chaotic, as incensed social media users pile on to somebody who has drawn their ire. 

Despite their similarities, disinformation and online harassment aren’t studied and understood the same way. Whereas much of disinformation research is devoted to uncovering networks of bad influencers, social media bots and faux new outlets, online harassment tends to get a less scientific examination, according to Benavidez and Vilk. Researchers and reporters often choose to focus on the anecdotes of individuals who have suffered acutely from being doxxed or otherwise targeted, rather than digging into the mechanisms behind the attacks. 

“Because there aren’t really good forensic investigations as this stuff plays out, we don’t have a lot of evidence,” Vilk said. “There might be all kinds of coordination happening in the dark corners of the web. … But we don’t have loads of evidence to say, at scale, this is how coordinated these (harassment campaigns) are.”

III. Batten the hatches: How journalists can tighten their online presence before they’re targeted by online harassment 

For local reporters, getting doxxed can feel like a far-off hypothetical scenario that only happens to national reporters or those in other countries. 

“It is still a new version of harassment that is on the periphery for most people,” Litke said. “If you don’t know somebody who it’s happened to, it doesn’t feel real.” 

But as mis- and disinformation creep into every aspect of public discourse, the likelihood of reporters getting targeted by abusers online increases. And preparing for the possibility of being doxxed, impersonated or otherwise targeted by online harassment is more effective than reacting to it, according to PEN America’s Online Harassment Field Manual

Damon Scott, a reporter with the Seminole Tribune in South Florida, says that reporting on disinformation feels different than most beats. In 2020, he monitored local mis- and disinformation as a news fellow for the global fact-checking organization First Draft. He’d never taken such a deep dive into disinformation before last year and “went into it a little bit naive about what I’d end up dealing with on the day-to-day,” he said. 

“I had never really sat down and analyzed misinformation like we did for the fellowship, and I wasn’t prepared for how it affected my mood and my spirit,” he said. “The whole experience was more distressing than I thought it would be. If I had to do it all over again, I would do it, but it was way more eye-opening than I thought it would be.” 

He was particularly discouraged by the scale of the problem and seeing so many social media influencers with significant followings using their megaphones irresponsibly. But as a local reporter who mostly worked behind the scenes to produce newsletters about Florida-specific information disorder — he didn’t engage directly with bad actors on social media — Scott was moderately concerned about his digital security. 

He tightened up his social media presence by unfriending practically everyone in his Facebook network, changing his username and approaching his account as strictly professional. 

“Not that anybody in these (Facebook) groups would have known who I was before, but if they tried to track me down, they might be able to find out,” he said. 

“The good news for reporters is that they’re trained to investigate things, they just never turn that on themselves,” she said. “But that’s what they need to do — they need to basically think like a doxxer and start digging into their own footprint online in order to understand what’s out there and how to get that information.”

Viktorya Vilk, PEN America

Building a support network is another effective way to be proactive. Reporters who produce solid explanatory work and become trusted resources in their online communities may be less vulnerable when they’re targeted by hackers and trolls. 

“Once you have a pretty good brand, you can tell people what’s happening to you and they will come to your assistance, especially if you give them some guidance on what kind of help you would want,” Vilk said.

For example, if a reporter discovers that they are being impersonated on social media, asking their network to help them report the account to a tech company will increase the likelihood that it will quickly be removed. 

“In that case it’s quite important to speak out about it,” Vilk said. “Say, ‘Hey, this isn’t me, please help me report this account. I’m being impersonated, don’t believe anything that comes out of this account.’ ”

One way for reporters to build trust within their networks is to use social media to explain and provide insights into their newsgathering process, Benavidez said. 

“At the risk of sounding like it’s homework, I think tiny nuggets like that can be incredibly moving and powerful for readers,” she said. “And those can help as preemptive tools you use in the event that a disinformation campaign targets you or your newsroom.” 

Another way to stay a step ahead of abusers is by tightening up one’s social media accounts and online presence, Vilk said. 

“The good news for reporters is that they’re trained to investigate things, they just never turn that on themselves,” she said. “But that’s what they need to do — they need to basically think like a doxxer and start digging into their own footprint online in order to understand what’s out there and how to get that information.” 

  1. Google yourself

Though this may seem “comically obvious,” Vilk said, get started by running your name, account handles, phone number and home address through various search engines. Start with Google, but don’t stop there. Google tailors search results to each individual user, which means a doxxer will get different results when they’re searching for your personal information. Use a search engine such as DuckDuckGo, which prioritizes users’ privacy, to break out of the filter bubble of personalized results. For an even more complete view of your online footprint, run your information through the Chinese search engine Baidu

  1. Set up alerts 

You can’t be expected to monitor mentions of your name and personal information around the clock — and you don’t have to. Set up Google alerts for your name, account handles, phone number and home address. At least you’ll know if your information starts circulating online. 

“You might want to do it for friends and family, too,” Vilk said. 

  1. Audit your online presence

Perhaps the most important step is tightening settings on your social media accounts so bad actors don’t have access to your personal information, or that of your loved ones. Be strategic about which accounts you’re using for which purpose, Vilk recommended. If you’re a reporter who uses Twitter to share your stories, keep up with colleagues and interact with your audience, keep it strictly professional. This isn’t the place for pictures of your cat or holidays with relatives, and it’s wise to scrub the account of potentially embarrassing tweets and photographs you forgot about. Don’t share where you live, your birthday, your cell phone number, or anything else that could be used to track you down.  

“If you’re using Instagram for photos of your dog and your baby, you should set your Instagram to private and put whatever you want on there,” she said. “But it should be separate from public accounts.” 

  1. Search for old CVs and bios

In a not-so-distant era of the internet, it was common for journalists and academic researchers to upload CVs, resumes and bios including personal information to personal websites. Search for forgotten documents that still live online and could potentially serve as goldmines for would-be doxxers. 

  1. Don’t forget data brokers

As a reporter, you may have come across data broker websites such as Spokeo and Whitepages while tracking down hard-to-reach sources. Such websites scour the internet for personal information and sell it — giving doxxers an easy way to find a target. 

As of August 2020, users can request their personal information be removed from by following the steps on the website’s help page. For websites that don’t have a step-by-step protocol, you can demand via email that your personal information be removed. 

If that’s too time-intensive, consider subscription services such as DeleteMe or PrivacyDuck, though the expense may be difficult for an individual reporter to cover. 

  1. Practice good password hygiene 

This goes for everyone, not just reporters: If you’re using your birthday as the same six-character password for all of your online accounts, you’re unnecessarily exposing sensitive personal information to hackers and making it far easier for somebody to pretend to be you. The longer the password, the more secure it is. Two-factor authentication is even better, and it’s wise to use a different password for every account. 

IV. You shouldn’t be alone: How newsrooms can support their employees 

Though they can shore up their online presence, reporters shouldn’t be left to combat the twin monsters of disinformation and online harassment alone. Many media employers, however, “appear reluctant to take online violence seriously,” according to the UNESCO report. (See PEN America’s guide for talking to employers about online harassment.

“We all need to be doing something,” Vilk said. “Individual reporters need to be doing things. Newsrooms need to be doing more than they are, and platforms need to be equipping reporters with better tools and features to protect themselves. It’s such a massive problem, it has to be a multi-stakeholder solution.” 

Newsrooms can brace for worst-case scenarios by developing policies and protocols to help staff members who are facing abuse from disinformation and discreditation campaigns. 

“That sends the message that discreditation campaigns are real and the newsroom takes them very seriously,” Vilk said, “and creates a culture where reporters feel comfortable coming forward and talking internally with the institution about what’s happening to them.”

She hasn’t always been successful, but Vilk encourages newsrooms to develop an internal reporting mechanism for reporters to flag particularly egregious attacks. Then the news organization can escalate the issue to a tech company, law enforcement, or a private security company. Creating clear guidelines for what reporters should do under extreme circumstances is critical. 

“Sometimes, when you’re in the middle of an attack, it’s so unsettling, frightening, and traumatic, you’re paralyzed,” she said. “So if you have a protocol you can be like ‘OK, I’m going to do this and this. I know who to talk to in my newsroom when this is happening.'” 

Newsrooms can also support their reporters by subsidizing subscriptions to information-scrubbing services and providing access to mental health care and legal counsel. And finally, if a reporter is made to feel unsafe at home — perhaps they’ve been doxxed and their home address has been shared — it’s their employer’s responsibility to ensure they have a safe place to go, Vilk said. 

“To be honest, a lot of this isn’t happening,” she said, “but it could and should be happening.” 

Single-handedly offering such comprehensive support is out of reach for many cash-strapped newsrooms. While disinformation and online harassment campaigns represent a growing threat to the free press, many news organizations are navigating the most resource-scarce landscape they’ve ever encountered. 

But Vilk sees opportunity in the way many news organizations have partnered with each other to deliver high-quality reporting during the COVID-19 era. The same spirit of partnership could apply to protecting their reporters from doxxing and harassment, she said. For example, multiple newsrooms could pitch in for a shared security specialist or internal reporting system. 

“I think that’s the future,” she said. “That has to happen because I don’t think the disinformation and abuse campaigns are going to let up anytime soon.”  

The Center for Journalism Ethics encourages the highest standards in journalism ethics worldwide. We foster vigorous debate about ethical practices in journalism and provide a resource for producers, consumers and students of journalism. Sign up for our quarterly newsletter here. 

How reenactments re-victimize crime victims

Illustration showing two hands controlling a film strip with puppet strings
Illustration by Beatriz Castro

On July 20th Costa Rica woke to tragic news. María Luisa Cedeño, a 43-year-old Costa Rican anesthesiologist and head of the Anesthesiology and Recovery Service at the private Hospital Cima, had been murdered at the five-star hotel La Mansión Inn in Manuel Antonio, Quepos. She was found in her room after a weekend of relaxation at one of Costa Rica’s most renowned beach towns.

Cedeño’s death sparked intense journalistic coverage. But the Costa Rican media organization Teletica, one of the mainstream television channels in the country, stood out for its striking and unethical coverage of Cedeño’s death.

Its weekly show 7 Días (7 Days), which is dedicated to interpretative journalism, aired a special episode on August 31st called “El crimen de la habitación número 3” (The crime of room number 3). The story quickly prompted criticism from national institutions in Costa Rica and outrage on social media, with critics accusing the story of imbalance and questioning the use of a reenactment for a case still under investigation by the Costa Rican authorities.

The National Institute for Women (INAMU), the College of Medicals and the College of Journalists spoke out publicly against 7 Días. The show’s director, Rodolfo González, who is a journalist and lawyer, proceeded to apologize publicly on September 2nd on behalf of the media and Barbara Marín, the journalist responsible for carrying out the news story. Teletica then removed the story from its website.

While reenactments are more often used in documentaries, their use in journalism is an ethically delicate matter. The Society of Professional Journalists’ Code of Ethics says re-enactments should be “clearly labeled.” The journalistic guidelines of PBS’ long-form news documentary Frontline also cautions that reenactments “must be clearly and unmistakably labeled” and that “public affairs programs in particular need to use these devices with great care.”

The 7 Días program seems to have lacked that care. According to Larissa Arroyo, a Costa Rican lawyer specializing in human rights and director of the citizen association ACCEDER, the reenactment, which presented the victim as cutting loose and drinking alcohol, did not inform so much as serve as a moral “lesson” to María Luisa Cedeño, her family and women in general, one that pretends to show that certain behaviors run the risk of getting any woman killed.

“They start assuming and acting out ridiculous images [or videos] of situations that we do not really know about. That is very painful for everyone. If you are not careful about that on television, it can become an absurd narrative of the good and the bad, of love and hate. It becomes a soap opera.”

Alejandro Fernández

“It becomes an emblematic case. She [was] a successful woman, a professional woman, a socially and culturally fulfilled woman,” Arroyo said. “And in spite of that, this ends up happening to her.” 

But the reenactment also contained another lesson – this one for journalism itself. 

“In the case of journalism,” Arroyo said, “it’s very important to know how to approach it and not have examples like these ones because the task of informing and reporting is not being fulfilled.” 

For Alejandro Fernández, a senior data journalist at PlayStation, the 7 Días’s story presented a series of assumptions and images acted out without any meaningful context.

“They start assuming and acting out ridiculous images [or videos] of situations that we do not really know about,” Fernández said. “That is very painful for everyone. If you are not careful about that on television, it can become an absurd narrative of the good and the bad, of love and hate. It becomes a soap opera.”

Reenactments as symbolic representations

The use of a reenactments as a creative tool in telling crime stories is a “slippery slope” because it can act as a stressor for the audience, the victim and the victim’s relatives. For Sarah Shourd, a US trauma-informed journalist and former John S. Knight fellow at Stanford University, reenactments deserve critical attention.

“I think we have to be more careful of the audience being deceived by our use of creative tools, creative reenactments being one of those tools,” Shourd said.

For her, journalism has the responsibility of taking into account the impact of stories on people’s lives as well as understanding reenactments as symbolic representations of a story.

“It’s completely unethical to create a representation of a crime as the truth when that crime is still being investigated and still undergoing in its process in the legal and court system.”

Sarah Shourd

“Reenactment has the word acting. It’s using the human form to create the illusion of an event,” Shourd said. “That is dangerous territory when you’re using an actual human body to symbolically represent another human being’s life.”

The dangerous territory in Cedeño’s case was enhanced by the fact that her case is still under investigation. For Shourd, reenactments are an inherently unethical tool while a legal case is underway because it interferes with the process.

“It’s completely unethical to create a representation of a crime as the truth when that crime is still being investigated and still undergoing in its process in the legal and court system,” Shourd said.

The unethical aspect of reenactments is not limited to questions of representation. There are also serious psychological components. How do reenactments affect the audience, the victim and the victim’s family?

The psychological impact of reenactments

According to Dr. Debra Lee Kaysen, a US clinical psychologist and professor in the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at the Stanford University Medical Center, when carrying out a story about a sensitive topic such as violence against women, the sources should be given control over their narrative. Otherwise journalism risks exposing victims in a public space. 

“It is really [about] helping someone understand what is going to happen with their story,” Kaysen said. “And what might happen with it in a public space and what the person’s cons and risks [are].”

The same rule applies to interviewing the relatives of the victim.

The impact reenactments have on audiences is another critical ethical consideration. In cases of violence against women, dramatizations can reinforce myths about sexual violence against women, including that the violence was the woman’s fault because of how she was dressed or that it is the victim’s responsibility to not be assaulted.

“Often those are done in such a dramatic way that it can reinforce some of those beliefs,” Kaysen said. “And it makes it seem more like a movie, something that you passively experience versus really hearing a story in someone’s own words.”

Dr. Elana Newman, a US clinical psychologist, research director at Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma from Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism and psychology professor at the University of Tulsa, said that sensationalized violence can also serve as a trigger for people who are suffering from grief and can be distressing, demoralizing and insensitive. To avoid sensationalism and damaging narrative framing, Newman points to the general journalistic coverage recommendations of the Dart Center.

These include: being respectful, taking your time, being honest about what information you need, being very clear about your informed consent, allowing survivors to take the lead, suggesting they bring support with them, not rushing and not asking for inessential details.

“I often ask journalists to write and then go back through it and think: if that was my family member or someone I loved, is there anything I would change in tone?,” Newman said.

“I often ask journalists to write and then go back through it and think: if that was my family member or someone I loved, is there anything I would change in tone?”

Dr. Elana Newman

According to Mary Rogus, a US associate professor of journalism at the E.W. Scripps School of Journalism at Ohio University and former television reporter, producer and executive producer, reenactments should never be used because of the re-victimization it entails.

“Ethically, I don’t think they should ever be used because of the potential of re-victimizing the victims and family members of the crime,” Rogus said. “It violates the very basic ethical principle of not deceiving the audience.”

“You can do all kinds of damage to those who were trying to get over the loss or the injury or the harm to a loved one,” Rogus said.

The journalistic implications of reenactments

Rogus teaches her students how to report these kinds of stories in a respectful manner by asking an essential question.

“How would you report the story if sex was not part of it?,” Rogus said. “Treat it the same.  Don’t treat it any differently. That’s how we get rid of some of the stigma and that’s the way victims will feel more comfortable coming forward.”

Like Rogus, Dr. Chris Allen, a US journalism professor at the University of Nebraska Omaha and former television news producer and television assignment editor, reenactments are never a good choice in television news stories because they are not portraying the truth.

“Journalism is storytelling based on facts and you cannot do a recreation without taking license with the facts. And that’s never good,” Allen said. “The victim in the video is not the victim. The perpetrators in the video are not the perpetrators. The crime is not the crime. It is never an accurate recreation of what we think happened.”

For Allen, reenactments are an unethical way to tell a story.

“When we put somebody else into the living role of the victim, it’s almost like a tear in the fabric of ethical reality,” Allen said.

He also believes that this adds into creating a false narrative about women.

“Every time we blame the woman or make the woman helpless, we damage the reality for women: for girls growing up watching this, for teenagers, for young adult women and for elderly women all along,” Allen said. 

“Journalism is storytelling based on facts and you cannot do a recreation without taking license with the facts. And that’s never good. The victim in the video is not the victim. The perpetrators in the video are not the perpetrators. The crime is not the crime. It is never an accurate recreation of what we think happened.”

Dr. Chris Allen

“We create a false narrative about women and in that way, empower those men in our society who are predisposed to violence. We empower to continue to create the violence against women,” Allen said.

For Dr. Donna Halper, a journalism Associate Professor at Lesley University, former deejay, music director, radio consultant and the woman credited for discovering the classic rock band Rush, reporters that are addressing sensitive topics must actively question their own journalistic process.

“It’s much easier to tell the story through the tropes, narratives and stereotypes of your culture until somebody calls them into question,” Halper said. 

To question the process means to be fair to the facts. 

“When I train journalists, I teach them two things: be fair to the facts and don’t get out in front of the facts,” Halper said. “If you don’t have the information, don’t just make it up. Don’t speculate. Don’t guess. Don’t put two things together that may not have been put together. You’re not a legal expert, you’re a reporter.”

Being fair to the facts implies looking for all the sides of story to have a balance, fairness and providing context in an ethical manner.

Context was not present in the story aired that 7 Días aired in Costa Rica. For the Costa Rican journalist Fernández, that lack of context led to the story having the wrong focus.

“The social approach and framing that we do about these events as a society is distorted. It does not reflect what is going on. We do not focus on what’s important,” Fernández said. “They forget that a woman was murdered. It begins to turn into an absurd narrative. A human being was killed and it is happening with much more frequency.”

For Fernández the story raises a very basic and essential question, “what do we learn from this as a society? Which is the moral?”

[CORRECTION: An earlier version of this article referred to Debra Kaysen as a “psychiatrist.” Kaysen is a clinical psychologist and professor in the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at the Stanford University Medical Center. We regret the error.]

The Center for Journalism Ethics reached out twice to the Costa Rican director and journalist Rodolfo González. The messages sent were seen and unanswered. The Costa Rican reporter Bárbara Marín was also contacted. She did answer and was open to an interview, but never gave it because she had to have the approval of the director Rodolfo González. María Luisa Cedeño’s case is still under investigation by the Costa Rican authorities.

The Center for Journalism Ethics encourages the highest standards in journalism ethics worldwide. We foster vigorous debate about ethical practices in journalism and provide a resource for producers, consumers and students of journalism. Sign up for our quarterly newsletter here.

Pulitzer-winner Wesley Lowery’s take on journalism in extraordinary times

Screenshot of Director Kathleen Bartzen Culver, student Tamia Fowlkes and 2020 journalist-in-residence Wesley Lowery during an October 8 discussion of “journalism in extraordinary times.”

By Dana Brandt and Elizabeth Marie Lang Oreamuno

On Thursday, October 8, Pulitzer Prize-winning U.S. journalist and CBS News correspondent Wesley Lowery was the virtual “journalist-in-residence” and guest speaker for a question-and-answer session hosted by the Center for Journalism Ethics at the University of Wisconsin–Madison. 

Lowery was the first prominent journalist to appear in a three-event series organized by UW–Madison and focused on “journalism in extraordinary times.” Moderated by Center for Journalism Ethics Director Kathleen Bartzen Culver and journalism undergraduate student Tamia Fowlkes, Lowery answered questions on the ethics of reporting on racial justice and law enforcement and discussed objectivity in journalism, a topic he covered in an opinion piece for the New York Times this summer. 

In answering an initial round of questions on newsroom diversity, Lowery stressed the importance of having journalists from different communities and experiences so that news organizations do not miss out on vital stories and angles. 

Image of live tweet from the Q and A session: "A newsroom that's attempting to tell the most accurate coverage of a complex, diverse world needs reporters. 'If you don't have different types of people in the room, you're going to miss out on all types of stories and angles." @WesleyLowery on diversity in journalism

“One of the things we have to remember is that mainstream news media organizations have only been integrated for a handful of decades,” Lowery said. “It wasn’t until the ‘70s that there were any efforts in earnest in having Black reporters, and much less brown reporters in American newsrooms.”

“I believe [newsroom diversity] is a journalistic imperative: We cover a complex, complicated diverse world and we cover it by access to information. We traffic in information,” Lowery said.

Lowery also spoke about the challenges journalists of color face in predominantly white newsrooms, such as different standards of conduct and tokenization. 

“We have to understand where journalists of color in these newsrooms are coming from now because they are very often the only ones,” Lowery said. “They are very often tokenized because they are very often asked to stand in for large representative groups of people.”

He referred to the coverage of the police killings of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor as a challenge for Black journalists in the newsrooms.

“George Floyd happens or Breona Taylor happens and a whole room of white journalists turn to the only Black woman at the end of the table and ask: What are people saying about this? What should we do about this?” Lowery said. “That is a fundamentally impossible position to be in.”

Image of tweet recapping a question for Wesley Lowery: "Tell us what you think journalists of color are seeing, hearing and feeling in newsrooms today." - Katy Culver

Lowery then advised young journalists of color to join groups such as the National Association of Black Journalists (NABJ), National Association of Hispanic Journalists (NAHJ) and others as well as remembering to speak up for yourself and your work. 

“Journalism is a field that is a profession in which you have to operate on your own ethical compass,” Lowery said. “[That] means that you have to be willing to stand up to your bosses when they want you to do things that you think you should not do or you believe that you should not do.” 

He also said journalists should walk away from things they can’t abide as a means of looking after themselves.

“You are the only one who is protecting your byline, your reputation and your name,” Lowery said.

As for the journalism industry as a whole, Lowery said journalists need to examine their processes to ensure that the methods being used have the intended consequences. Reporters can’t just rely on practices that worked in previous years, since journalism is constantly evolving, he said.

“We can’t be on autopilot. We can’t conduct journalism in 2020 based on a rulebook written in 1980. Why? Because the players have changed, the actors have changed, the dynamics have changed,” Lowery said.

He provided the example of news organizations publishing mugshots — a practice that used to serve the purpose of informing only the local community, but which now result in mugshot photos being available forever on the internet.

“Something that was about informing a community in the short term actually ends up being something that harms an individual in the long term,” Lowey said. “You have a collateral consequence that was not intended because we were following rules that worked at some point, that might be incorrect right now because of the internet.”

Along with this, he pointed out that the idea of “objectivity” wasn’t originally meant to apply to individual reporters but instead to the method of reporting — precisely because no individual is perfectly objective, without preconceptions and beliefs about issues. 

Objectivity initially served as an acknowledgement that reporters have political beliefs, Lowery said, but recently focus has shifted onto individuals becoming “objective journalists” whose work can be discredited when others uncover evidence of political leanings. 

This new definition of objectivity has also earned new synonyms for the term, such as “balance” and “fairness,” Lowery said, which do not mean the same thing. Some reporters then take this idea of “objectivity” to levels where it becomes performative.

“It is cases where it’s a performative objectivity,” Lowey said, providing a hypothetical scenario. “You’re writing pieces on climate change and you’re going out of your way to find a climate denier or scientist so that no one can argue that you did not have that voice included even if there is no factual basis to include them.”

Image of live tweet: "What journalists can do better, according to Wesley Lowery: Break reliance on speed and commit to follow-up reporting. When you're the last person to publish the story, you write the best one!"

Lowery also wants the journalism industry to break its reliance on speed to allow reporters the time to get the full story, put it in context and spell it out when you don’t know something.

This is also true of stories on police violence, a topic Lowery addressed in his piece for the New York Times. Reporters should examine the way they write about police, he said, and ask themselves if they’re advancing the truth with each story and holding powerful people accountable. 

“A police officer is the most powerful person most Americans will encounter in their lives. Donald Trump, Hillary Clinton and Joe Biden, they can’t pull out a gun and shoot you in the chest,” Lowery said. 

“Every single sworn police officer in the country can do that. That’s an extreme amount of power,” Lowery said. “Power can require skepticism. It requires accountability and the press is supposed to play that role.”

Journalists can write about the facts of what happened without using laudatory language, Lowery said, such as “in the line of duty” — a phrase that isn’t applied to other public servants like garbage workers or city council members. The framing of words like “armed” and “unarmed” aren’t neutral, Lowery said, and signal to an audience how they should feel about a story.

Live tweet from Natalie Yahr during Q and A session highlighting Wesley's comments on holding the most powerful people accountable in the stories covered.

And lastly, Lowery talked about the media’s coverage of Senator Kamala Harris as being a prominent person of color in the midst of the 2020 elections.

“The media has had a real trouble understanding the complexity of Kamala Harris’s identity being the daughter of a Black Jamaican man and an Indian woman,” Lowery said. “In Black communities that’s not particularly complex because Black communities have always been diverse in this way.”

To watch the entire session with Lowery, navigate here.

The Center for Journalism Ethics encourages the highest standards in journalism ethics worldwide. We foster vigorous debate about ethical practices in journalism and provide a resource for producers, consumers and students of journalism. Sign up for our quarterly newsletter here.

When coverage is what they want: covering mass shootings without perpetuating them

As news of yet another school shooting — this one in Santa Clarita, California — broke in mid-November, one key piece of information was decidedly absent from the headlines and initial internet search results: the name of the perpetrator. 

Though police had identified the gunman, many major outlets gave his name and description low billing in their reporting. It’s part of a reporting shift over the past few years that goes well beyond decisions about using names or images. In response to research suggesting that extensive coverage of these assailants may encourage others to follow suit, many outlets have chosen to devote less coverage to perpetrators and more to victims and to the laws and policies that have not prevented these tragedies.

Are the killings contagious?

Long before Julie Turkewitz knew she’d become a New York Times National Desk reporter — and long before she knew she’d cover more mass shootings than she can count — Turkewitz was a 13-year-old watching coverage of one of the nation’s earliest mass shootings: Columbine. She’s never forgotten what she saw. 

“That was really the beginning of streaming news, 24-hour news,” she said of the 1999 tragedy. “Some of the images that I saw on TV …  are seared in my brain still.”

Coverage of the nation’s early mass shootings focused heavily on perpetrators, a fact that has not escaped later perpetrators seeking such attention. So many people have admired the Columbine attackers that the phenomenon has a name — “the Columbine effect” — and admirers have a name too: “Columbiners.” 

And it’s not just Columbine that inspires new attacks. The gunman who killed himself and nine others at Umpqua Community College in Roseburg, Oregon, in 2015 expressed in an online manifesto his allegiance with the Isla Vista gunman. It was the first mass shooting that Turkewitz would cover. 

And the teenage gunman who killed 17 at a high school in Parkland, Florida, in 2017 said in a cell phone video, “I’m going to be the next school shooter of 2018 … It’s going to be a big event. When you see me on the news you’ll all know who I am.” 

Researchers are working to determine whether mass shootings are essentially contagious, and the results are not yet clear. A 2015 study found that the likelihood of a mass shooting event was greater within two weeks of another mass shooting, but a 2017 study found no such link. Still, the authors of the 2017 study noted, “if outsized media coverage of mass killings is indeed increasing the frequency and lethality of subsequent attacks, the priority should be on altering coverage of these incidents so that no additional harm is done.” 

“They’re seeking notoriety”

Caren Teves needs no convincing that the contagion effect is real. When her son Alex and 11 others were killed in 2012 in a movie theater in Aurora, Colorado, the coverage was perpetrator-focused as it had been 13 years before. “If coverage had changed immediately following Columbine,” Teves said, “I do believe my son would still be alive — and thousands of others.”

Since 2012, Teves and her husband, Tom, have made it their mission to convince media outlets to minimize their use of assailants’ names and photographs and thereby avoid glorifying assailants and their crimes. Their organization, No Notoriety, calls on news outlets to follow six guidelines, including naming perpetrators only once per story, not adding color to descriptions of perpetrators and not publishing perpetrators’ “self-serving” statements, photos or manifestos.

“The perpetrators are telling us themselves,” Teves said. “They’re seeking notoriety. So if we can eliminate notoriety, hopefully we can really cut down on rampage, mass shootings.”

The fact that journalists have already changed their practices to reduce the risk of suicide is proof that they can change their practices on this issue too, Teves said. “We’re not asking to reinvent anything. We’re just asking journalists to use the practices that are already in place.” In 2017, suicide-awareness group SAVE published recommendations designed to help reporters do just that.

Coverage shifts

While few outlets have publicly pledged to follow all of the No Notoriety guidelines, there’s no question that many outlets have changed their approach.

In a June Poynter article titled, “Not naming mass shooters (much) is now the norm,” Kelly McBride, chair of the Craig Newmark Center for Ethics and Leadership at The Poynter Institute, wrote, “For an industry that is often criticized for being slow to change, this development is remarkable.”

Al Tompkins, senior faculty for Broadcasting and Online for the Poynter Institute, has long made clear that he doesn’t believe outlets should stop naming perpetrators altogether. “There’s a difference between reporting and glorifying,” he said, differentiating between the nicknames news outlets gave criminals a century ago. 

In fact, Tompkins said, reporting on the assailant’s behavior can provide an important service. “Virtually every mass shooter in the last 20 years has left behind a substantial trail of evidence that somebody could have stopped it,” Tompkins said. “You’ll never know everything we should and could know about the shooters — about what motivates them, who they are and so on — unless we take time to figure out who they are.”

But, given the possible risks, Tompkins said, minimizing the use of an assailant’s name and photo may be appropriate. (He offers his own recommendations here.)

The New York Times has no policy against naming the perpetrators of mass shootings, but Deputy National Desk Editor Julie Bloom said the outlet has taken steps to avoid feeding into the violence. It’s not rules but “more just a …  sense of this is how to responsibly handle it.”

“I think we’re very careful,” Bloom said, noting that the Times makes deliberate choices about how often to name perpetrators and often avoid using their names in display copy. “We don’t want to be a platform …  for giving attention to gunmen or attackers.”

Reporter Julie Turkewitz said this also means making choices about how to portray the gunman. Descriptions of an assailant’s outfit — for example, whether he wore white supremacist symbols or body armor — can become problematic, as they “sort of turn them into an image of an action figure,” whose image other perpetrators ritualize and copy. “That’s why it’s important to hit pause and say, ‘Is this description of their outfit adding something to the greater knowledge and reporting here?’” Turkewitz said.

Instead of just describing their outfits, Turkewitz said, reporters should ask deeper questions: “Where did they get that body armor, and why did nobody raise a flag? … If a perpetrator was wearing something with white supremacist symbols on it, what role did the political climate and white supremacy generally play?”

Meanwhile, many outlets have shifted coverage from assailants to the victims, survivors and their families, whose emotional and physical wounds will last lifetimes. Teves has noticed the shift. “When my son Alex was killed, if you think about the front page of the newspaper, all you saw was that red-haired individual,” Teves said. “If you look at the most recent shootings, if you look at the front page of the newspaper, what do you see? You see photos of the victims. So we know it’s changing.”

Growing frequency, technology prompt new approaches

Turkewitz attributes these new practices to the growing frequency of mass shootings. “It was hard to have that conversation … even in 2015 because these things didn’t seem to be happening quite as frequently,“ Turekwitz said. “As they have happened more and more, I think that there has been more of a reckoning and more of a thought to what is our involvement.”

But responsible reporting gets tougher as reporters are expected to report faster than ever, Turkewitz said, pointing to the 2015 San Bernardino shooting — which quickly became a talking point in the presidential campaigns — as the start of accelerated expectations. 

Digital environments have also raised new ethical challenges for this reporting, Bloom said. Each outlet wants to appear at the top of the search results when someone Googles “El Paso attack,” for example, “but we also want to be careful that we’re not helping boost, say, the name of a gunman.” 

Outlets could soon have a new set of principles to guide their reporting on these events. In an August Columbia Journalism Review article, Miles Kohrman, special projects editor at The Trace, and Katharine Reed, professor of practice at the Missouri School of Journalism, invited newsrooms to work with them as they draft guidelines on covering mass shootings. “Our work should not contribute to the country’s accelerating scourge of mass killings, driven by young men with firearms seeking fame and recognition,” the authors wrote.

But just making more ethical reporting choices isn’t enough, said Joy Mayer, an engagement strategist and director of Trusting News. Newsrooms also need to explain their choices to their audiences, as the Viriginian Pilot — a participant in the Trusting News project — did when it chose to name the man who killed 12 in Virginia Beach in May. 

“The efforts of journalists to make thoughtful, respectful, consistent decisions are invisible to their audiences unless they shine a light on them,” Mayer said in an email. “The importance of transparency increases when the stakes are high. We simply must find ways to explain that we aim to be a public service, and we need to walk them through our decision-making.”

Not just about names — or even mass shootings

But ethical reporting on gun violence goes beyond decisions about naming or describing perpetrators. “This is the most low-hanging of all fruit,” Tompkins said, arguing that stopping shootings would require changing access to guns and ammunition. “But people don’t want to do that. What they want to do is say, ‘Oh, you know, if you just stop mentioning the shooter’s name, that’ll do it.’ No, it won’t … It’s just too simple. And all the easy stuff’s already been done.”

But writing stories about the laws and policies that have allowed these tragedies to occur comes with its own challenges. “We don’t know what policy failed if we don’t know what happened,” Turkewitz said. “We’ve got to understand the who, what, why, where and when, before we can step back and have the bigger conversation … I do think that’s why it’s kind of important to explore both wings.” 

For The Trace, a nonprofit news outlet exclusively covering gun violence and gun policy, policy issues are the issues. While The Trace includes basic information about a shooting in stories about policy or victims, it doesn’t cover the events themselves as news. Many outlets want to “report out all the gory details of a particular incident and how it unfolded and what actually happened,” Kohrman said, “and I think our job is to kind of contextualize the shooting.”

In covering the Las Vegas shooting, for example, The Trace’s coverage focused on bumpstocks and “barely legal” accessories that can make legal guns more lethal. And in covering November’s Santa Clarita school shooting, The Trace asked how, in a state with some of the strictest gun laws in the country, a 16-year-old got a gun. 

Getting serious about gun violence also means looking beyond single events, Tompkins said, noting that far more people die of gun violence in general than die in mass shootings, and yet more die from suicide than homicide. “We get so focused on the smallest numbers, while the largest numbers we don’t pay attention to,” Tompkins said.

Those largest numbers are the specialty of the reporters at The Trace. “I understand why news outlets focus so much on mass shootings because they are these huge international news events,” Kohrman said, though they represent only about 3% of all gun fatalities in the U.S. each year. “The media landscape coverage is skewed towards mass shootings. And that’s … not really an accurate representation of the issue.” 

The Trace, meanwhile aims to explore “everyday gun violence … the steady drumbeat that happens every day.” 

But, Kohrman acknowledges, The Trace is able to do that work in a way most outlets can’t. He said he talks to many editors who say they’d like to do more investigative reporting on guns but don’t have the resources. That’s why The Trace partners with other outlets, he said, to combine both gun expertise and local expertise. 

“But, I mean, I think it’s something that everybody’s struggling with,” Kohrman said. “There’s no easy answer to it.”


CJE Fellow Natalie Yahr served as a freelance reporter for the New York Times national desk during the fall 2019 semester. Her work for the Times was independent of her reporting on this story.

The Center for Journalism Ethics encourages the highest standards in journalism ethics worldwide. We foster vigorous debate about ethical practices in journalism and provide a resource for producers, consumers and students of journalism. Sign up for our quarterly newsletter here.


Be accountable, be transparent – with your data too; A Q&A with Rodrigo Zamith

Photo: Steven Potter


Journalists incorporate data into their reporting for good reason: numbers tell us important, odd and interesting things about ourselves.

Hidden within raw data are insights about our patterns, problems and trends, such as the frequency of our activities, crime levels, how we distribute goods and services, where we have pockets of poverty or wealth, how we use our time and countless other measurable facts.

But as more journalists begin to lean on data as a reporting tool, they need to keep a keen eye on just how effectively — and ethically — they’re using it.

Rodrigo Zamith, an assistant professor of journalism at University of Massachusetts Amherst, does just that.

“[Data-based journalism] has become discursively valuable because a large group of people still — incorrectly, in my mind — view [it] as being more neutral and objective than traditional journalism,” Zamith says. “As a social scientist, I view data journalism as an opportunity to further imbue some of the best practices from science into journalism in order to make journalism more transparent and informative.”

His most recent study, however, found that journalists at two of the country’s biggest and most-respected newspapers were not being as transparent and informative with data as they could have been.

In his study “Transparency, Interactivity, Diversity, and Information Provenance in Everyday Data Journalism” (Digital Journalism, 2019), Zamith found that both The New York Times and The Washington Post failed to be completely transparent about the data they used, often didn’t explain their data collection or analysis methods and usually didn’t give the public access to the data they used in their reporting.

Zamith discussed his study’s findings and the ethics involved in data journalism recently with the Center for Journalism Ethics.

This interview has been edited for length.

What are the ethical concerns involved in data journalism and data-driven reporting?

At the top of my list is probably not taking advantage of this special status that some people grant to quantification. Stories that involve data analysis are often viewed as being more credible, and it can be tempting for a journalist to leverage that perception in order to appear more authoritative or precise. To be clear, I don’t think most data journalists intentionally do this but they certainly could. Moreover, simple misunderstandings of data borne from deadline pressures or lack of training can result in improper interpretation and contextualization, which is a more common problem.

Second, data journalists can sometimes gain access to information that would violate individuals’ expectations of privacy. This sometimes comes via individual-level data that haven’t been de-identified or through de-identified data that can become easily identifiable when combined with other datasets. The desire to be transparent and forthcoming — such as by creating databases or interactive visualizations that allow viewers to explore individual-level data points — sometimes violates the ethical objective of minimizing harm.

Third, data journalists often use data from other (non-news) organizations, and it is crucial that they remain mindful of those organizations’ objectives and potential biases in order to ensure the journalist is reporting truthful (and not just ‘accurate’) information. Journalists don’t often have the luxury of choosing from multiple datasets that seek to measure the same things. Rather, they may have to decide whether a dataset is simply “good enough” — and, in some cases, the available data is worse than having no supporting data at all. These ethical concerns only begin to scratch the surface, though. Data journalism, and journalism in general, is a challenging endeavor.

What did your recent study, “Transparency, Interactivity, Diversity, and Information Provenance in Everyday Data Journalism,” reveal about the practices of data journalism by the New York Times and The Washington Post?

The big takeaway from the study is that the potential many scholars and practitioners see in data journalism are not yet being realized in the day-to-day data journalism produced by The New York Times and The Washington Post. Specifically, the study found that those organizations favored “hard news” topics, typically used fairly uncomplex data visualizations with low levels of interactivity, relied primarily on institutional sources (especially government sources) and engaged in limited original data collection, and were far less transparent than one might hope for in terms of linking directly to datasets or detailing the methodologies used for analysis.

While that may seem like an indictment of their performance, that is not at all what I mean to convey with my study. The study measured their day-to-day work against an ideal — a rather high bar — and I believe there are legitimate structural factors that can help explain the shortcomings I pointed to. I actually think these two organizations do a good job in many regards, and my hope is to see them do even better in other areas.

Why is this lack of transparency and failure to explain methodology exhibited by the Times and Post ethically problematic?

One of the key tenets of the Society of Professional Journalists’ Code of Ethics is to “be accountable and transparent.” This involves explaining to readers the key processes underlying a story, including where the information came from and how the information was analyzed.

My study found that the Times and Post rarely linked directly to the datasets they used. However, they did often link to the organizations they got the information from. The issue is that it can sometimes be hard to find a specific dataset even after being pointed to an organization’s homepage. Thus, if the ethical objective is transparency, data journalists are only partly succeeding.

I believe data journalists should aim to make it as easy as possible for readers to double-check the journalist’s work and perhaps even to build on the journalist’s work. To achieve that, a direct link is preferable. This is especially important if the data journalist has altered the original data in any way, such as by aggregating data or calculating new variables, since it introduces new possibilities for human error and biases. In those cases, sharing their edited datasets is one way to adhere to the transparency objective.

My study also found that journalists seldom provided methodological details separately from an article, such as in methodology boxes at the end of the article, in footnotes that need to be clicked on to appear, or in separate articles devoted to detailing the methodology. While we did not directly measure the inclusion of those details within the article, it is rare to find them there because journalists often view themselves as storytellers and such detail can bog down the narrative.

The lack of methodological details is problematic, though, because it again fails to deliver on the transparency objective. Datasets don’t just produce errors if they’re analyzed incorrectly. They would just tell a story that misinforms. Being clear about one’s methodology provides an avenue for accountability so others can review and, if necessary, critique the journalist’s analytic choices. One of the great hopes for data journalism is that it will help increase trust in journalism precisely because of its many avenues for increasing transparency. Failing to make the data easily accessible or clearly explaining the methodology reduces the likelihood of realizing that hope.

What should these two outlets do to correct these missteps?

I think the data journalists at those organizations, and many others, generally do a good job. I also think that the shortcomings I identified are partly byproducts of journalistic conventions.

For example, the dearth of links to specific datasets isn’t terribly atypical if you consider the traditional analogue: news organizations are more likely to link to the institution affiliated with a human source rather than to the source’s biography page. I don’t think this is an unreasonable practice but I do think that it is a practice that can be adjusted to take advantage of the distinct affordances of data journalism. After all, a human source may not have a publicly available biography page but the data journalist will always have the dataset.

If the dataset is already publicly hosted, it should be easy to link directly to it, perhaps in addition to linking to the parent organization. If it is not already publicly hosted, the data journalist may be able to upload it to any of the many open data hubs out there, and link directly to that. If they’d like a little more control, news organizations should invest in the technical infrastructure for self-hosting datasets. Having said that, there are instances where it is inappropriate to put up a dataset, as in cases where it may violate copyright or a reasonable expectation of privacy. In such cases, journalists should just explain that decision.

I believe the oftentimes inadequate methodological explanations can also be attributed to journalistic norms. Journalists are tasked with simplifying things and writing in an accessible manner, which can promote doing away with technical and methodological details. I think it’s very reasonable and perhaps even a best practice to offload that information to a section separate from the article, provided it’s made clear to a reader how those details may be accessed.

However, writing up those details can be rather time-consuming, presenting a challenge to journalists constantly being asked to do more with less. This is doubly true for the day-to-day data journalism that likely won’t be nominated for prestigious awards. This would require a broader cultural shift within organizations to value this kind of work, which doesn’t typically provide immediate and easily measured benefits. However, it is important work. For the majority of people, who may not fully understand the technical details or have the inclination to evaluate them, the perception of greater transparency increases their trust in the news story and the news organization. For the minority, it allows them to scrutinize and perhaps even suggest corrections to the journalists. And we should celebrate those instances because it means that better, more trustworthy journalism is being done.

With ethics in mind, what are the guidelines and best practices that journalists should follow when working with data?

To better realize the ideal of transparency, data journalists should keep and make public reproducible analysis documents that detail how they analyzed their data. Many data journalists already keep a data analysis notebook, so they’re off to a good start. However, a best practice would be to post the original and modified datasets, as well as the analysis scripts, on platforms like GitHub. In fact, The New York Times and The Washington Post already do this with some of their projects, and they deserve credit for that openness. They’re not the only ones, with outlets like The Boston Globe, FiveThirtyEight and BuzzFeed News doing the same. My hope is that such practices can be extended to the day-to-day data journalism — even if it is not as well-documented as the bigger projects.

Over time, this would hopefully become the norm rather than the exception. However, it requires news organizations to recognize, incentivize, and reward that kind of behavior. Data journalists should also make clear in the body of a story the limitations of their datasets and analyses. It can sometimes feel like such details bog down a story or make it appear less authoritative. However, they’re crucial for ensuring a reader is well-informed, which is ultimately a key purpose of journalism.

What are your expectations for data journalists going forward? How can they use data in an ethical manner?

It is my hope that data journalists will collect more data themselves, or perhaps collaborate in that endeavor. My study found that The New York Times and the Washington Post rarely collect their own data for their day-to-day data journalism, and consequently rely on third-party data that generally comes from government sources but also from different nonprofits and interest groups. That’s not surprising because it’s expensive and time-consuming to collect primary data though there are several examples of news organization doing that for bigger projects.

Nevertheless, there are a large gaps in data collection at the moment, and partnerships between news organizations and academic institutions or civic groups may yield important and timely stories that shed light on important truths within and across communities.

I also think data journalists need to become even more careful with data subsidies going forward. I expect data journalists will be increasingly targeted by unethical individuals and organizations that publish data as a strategic communication tool because they understand that citizens tend to find numbers more authoritative than personal stories. Combating that would require data journalists to become even more adept at evaluating data quality and methodologies. We have many accomplished experts who specialize in data literacy, and it’s important that we get their insights into as many newsrooms as possible.

Finally, I expect data journalism to become even more interdisciplinary in the coming years, with the likes of graphic designers and programmers being more tightly integrated with the editorial side in order to not only “support” data journalism but actively co-produce it. Some news organizations have moved more quickly than others in this direction, and I believe it is an important move to advance the most ethical version of data journalism.

What will you be studying next and what ethical issues might you encounter with it?

I view this study as an opening act because it leaves important questions unanswered. For example, the study’s design limits its ability to answer the “why” questions, such as why specific affordances, like information boxes provided at the end of an article to explain methodological choices, are not commonly utilized. Of particular interest to me is the use different collaborative platforms like GitHub to further “open” journalism, and the extent to which the transparency ideal becomes contested in the minds of journalists who use those platforms. As part of a separate line of research, I would also like to explore the third-party algorithms and tools being adopted by journalists, and how the designers of those tools — many of whom have limited, if any, journalistic background — attempt to engineer greater acceptance of their tools among journalists. I expect that line of research to directly engage with ethical tensions that emerge from the clash of different professional logics, as well as tensions that arise in the merging of commercial and public-service interests.

The Center for Journalism Ethics encourages the highest standards in journalism ethics worldwide. We foster vigorous debate about ethical practices in journalism and provide a resource for producers, consumers and students of journalism. Sign up for our quarterly newsletter here.