Skip to main content

In our age of ‘data’, the importance of investigative data journalism should not be overlooked.

Mollie Field explores the dominance of 'data' in our society. This piece highlights the importance of investigative data journalism, in this current climate, as being vital in sustaining a healthy democracy.

BY Mollie Field

At a time when data is thought to be the new oil, could the use of data for journalism be a protector of democratic wealth? Mollie Field explores the changing perceptions of data and the significance of investigative data journalism in our increasingly digitalised communications landscape; highlighting the need for social platforms such as Facebook to hold greater responsibility as social actors and publishers of content.

Earlier this month The Economist reported that the world’s most valuable resource is no longer oil, but data. Perhaps this analogy is merely a topical one-liner. Perhaps the suggestion that oil is infinitely recyclable is ignorant to its core characterises as a finite resource; so inimitable that wars have been fought over its very use. Though, such analogy may be hyperbolic upon the economic power of data; considering data as the new oil is a suitable comparison to highlight the taxing authority that data, and the companies that dominate its existence, can have upon democracy. March 2018, became the month when legacy media such as The New York Times, Channel 4 and The Guardian, broke details of the Cambridge Analytica — a third-party political consulting firm based in London — and Facebook scandal to the public. Whistle-blower and former Cambridge Analytica employee Christopher Wylie provided details of the political actors who hired Cambridge Analytica, aspects of the relationship between Analytica and Facebook, and the amount of user’s data allegedly harvested, 50 million profiles to be exact, to build phycological profiles of which to target users with adverts pre-US presidential election.

The Facebook-Cambridge scandal has since become a tangled web of influencing elections —from the US election to Brexit with the involvement of Vote Leave funding — linking London finance to Moscow oil firms and the routinisation of manufacturing fake-news to shape a global community of Facebook users political opinions. The tangled web illuminated starkly the capability of data giants such as Facebook to abuse their power and misplace their duty of care to users. Facebook had known about the Analytica data breach from 2015 and had been routinely warned that their data security policies could provide loopholes for manipulation and abuse. Facebook sits comfortably on the outskirts of both mainstream publishing and politics alike, yet the companies role as both a publisher of content and a platform of which disseminates political news and views is more prominent than ever. Of course, questions must now be asked upon the regulations such digital giants should be governed under; and what responsibilities they bare as both gatekeepers of news and as influential institutes increasingly ingrained in the political sphere.

“Facebook essentially controls the marketplace of ideas, and that's a very powerful thing to control when you're living in a democracy.”

Kelly McBride

As Kelly McBride — Media Ethicist at The Poynter Institute—accurately notes upon Facebook’s responsibility — as a hybrid platform hosting social and news content — Facebook essentially controls the marketplace of ideas, and that’s a very powerful thing to control when you’re living in a democracy.”. Though, the Facebook-Cambridge scandal has brought debates upon data, Facebook, privacy and democracy into the mainstream consciousness—partly due to the direct abuse and interference upon elections that the scandal has revealed—this is not the first time Facebook should have been questioned in this manner. Facebook’s actions over the previous years should force us to reconsider the role that the social media giant has in society; we should continue to question responsibility.

Photo by @tirzavandijk

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg states, “We’re a tech company, we’re not a media company. [We build] the tools, we do not produce any of the content.” The label of ‘content neutral technology platform’ is often attributed, avoiding the branding of Facebook as an editor or publisher of content.  Although, as Facebook has increased the feature of ‘personalised content’ based upon user’s social activity; Facebook increasingly adopts the editorial role of gatekeeping information and using algorithms to create filter bubbles around what content users digest. Fake News is the buzz word of our generation. Facebook has and should continue to provide regulation that tackles the dissemination of fake news and political misinformation. The giants that deal with data have a responsibility too as publishers of content. The Facebook-Analytica scandal is yet another example of the need to continue to question the responsibility that Facebook should host.

“Data is the new oil. It's valuable, but if unrefined it cannot be used… so must data be broken down, analysed for it to have value”

Clive Humby

Clive Humby —architect to Tesco’s Clubcard and the widely credited farther to the data/oil analogy discussed— noted in 2006 “Data is the new oil. It’s valuable, but if unrefined it cannot be used so must data be broken down, analysed for it to have value”. Therefore, at a time when manipulation of data has brought a dark cloud upon the potentials of a harmonious relationship between the digital age and democracy; breaking down and analysing data should not be measured upon economic value but democratic value. And that is where investigative data journalism comes into the equation. Data journalism —sharing a common ground with the watchdog function of the press — must paint a brighter picture of data, democracy and the digital age. Data journalism is an essential protector of a wealthy democracy; providing a necessary check upon the powerful whom deal in data.

Data journalism can be ambiguous to define, though central is the concept that data can provide new ways for journalists and indeed the public to tell stories, report news and most significantly practise crucial investigative journalism. It is a celebration of using data to enhance democracy, rather than hinder. Jonathan Gray, the author of The Data Journalism Handbook, writes that practically data journalism opens doors to the automated collection of information, software that can find connections between mass documents and the use of infographics and interactivity of news stories. It is evident that these practicalities of data journalism can be synthesised to make the process of investigation journalism most effective.

In the journalistic field, professionals have become expert in considering the challenges and threats new media poses to the news media market and skill of traditional journalism. Similarly, in academia an ideological discourse of difference, between an industry of old and new is topical. Indeed, digital media has drastically changed the media landscape; the reporting, production and consumption of news media are of course no longer normative. Though, investigative data journalism is a model of how both new media and traditional practice can not only coexist but complement one another. A chief illustration of how the use of data for investigative journalism can provide democratic wealth is the November 2017 Paradise Papers scandal.

Photo by @norobotyet

An investigation led by the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ) — independent D.C based global networks of media partners and journalists— unveiled yet another scandal of the lucrative off-shore world, proving a stark reminder that legal loopholes enable the rich to get richer, while global wealth inequality grows. The 13.4 million files of electronic data — leaked from predominantly two offshore service providers; Bermuda based legal service provider Appleby and corporate service provider Estera — makes The Paradise Papers the second most significant data leak in global history, under the sister investigation The Panama Papers. The Paradise Papers investigation is part of a broad field of investigative journalism, of which the leak of data is chief.

The Paradise Papers can be positioned in a broader picture of similar expose, spanning across a four-year period; the Off-Shore leaks of 2013, Luxemburg 2014 ‘LuxLeaks’, the Swiss Leaks of 2015 and the Panama Papers of 2016. The Paradise Papers should be celebrated as not only a form of journalism that rejoices old and new, but a primary example of how investigative data journalism can protect democracy and work in the public interest. Though, both the Facebook-Analytica scandal, the Paradise Papers, the off-shore leaks, the LuxLeaks, the Swiss Leaks… and the Panama Paper involved the mishandling or perhaps leaking of data; the prominent distinction is that one was in the public interest and one was not; one has been an attack on democracy, and one was in the interest of fairness. The prominence of this piece is to highlight that utilising data to enhance investigative journalistic practice, in an age when the dangers of data are considered more so than ever, is undoubtedly a protector to a wealthy democracy, its value should not be overlooked.