Does Data Journalism help democracy?

I’m writing a book chapter on data journalism (I know, who isn’t these days) which I’ll share more of when it makes sense! But one of the areas that is giving me real pause for thought at the moment is the question of how much data journalism contributes to the democratic process.

Data journalism is fast becoming a motif for a range of challenges and opportunities in journalism; Data journalism is about integration of new technology and skills; It’s about (re)discovering a role for journalism in a changing media landscape; it’s about industries capacity to save itself.

But more often than not, the general consensus is that it’s about the reinvigoration of journalism as part of the fourth estate. In fact really well known and kind of cool people tell us that’s what it needs to be.

The shot in the arm data has given to investigative and political reporting coupled with a willingness not only to participate in but campaign for a transparent and open data culture would seem to answer the question straight off the bat. Look at MP’s expenses, look at wikileaks.

The powerful claim to operate in a new and open way (open government and all that) and data is their proof and so we, armed with the new tools to understand that data continue in our duty to hold them to account. Good data journalism goes a stage further and makes data available, in context, to the ‘public’. Not only does that make for great engagement and better journalism but we give the audience the tools with which to fully understand and so participate in the democratic process. Job done!

Or is it? Whilst it’s holding the accountable to account, is the process of data journalism really producing ‘tools’ that people can use in the democratic process?

Does making a spreadsheet available to users really democratise information? Does making something searchable by postcode really make it more useful on the ground? Isn’t it just creating a small, equally uncountable, data elite? Is it really just a good way to reposition (consolidate) journalism as gatekeepers?

Part of this is wondering what tools people really need to be part of a democracy. Does the general disaffection with the political process (in the UK anyway) mean that the majority of data journalism, which focusses on the business of government and big institutions (often because that’s where you can get the data), already lacks relevance ? Is the dependence on online technologies for processing, distribution and presentation of this stuff really helpful in an environment where technical literacy in these areas a problem?

Accountability or utility. What’s data journalism really about?



3 Replies to “Does Data Journalism help democracy?”

  1. This reminds me of the discussions around social media democratising [insert your choice of issue here].

    In that case there often seemed to be two understandings of the term ‘democratising’. On the one hand, people who understood it to mean ‘giving a voice to all’ would moan ‘Not everyone in on social media/uses the internet’.

    On the other hand, people who understood it to mean ‘giving a voice to more’ (strictly speaking enfranchisement) would say ‘It gives a voice to people who previously didn’t have one’.

    So, data journalism. Yes, there is a ‘data elite’ just as there was a social media elite. But that ‘elite’ is still a larger body of people than previously could use this stuff. On that basis I would argue that data journalism is enfranchising.

    It may yet follow the same trajectory as access to social media, but the key thing is the point we’re starting from, where any improvement in literacy (numeracy) and factchecking (a newly popular genre!) is to be welcomed.

    1. Thanks for the comment Paul.

      I’m not sure that comparing data journalism and social media works in this context. Social media strikes me more as an environment and digital journalism a process; a response to a the big data environment. Perhaps participatory journalism, as a response to engaging with social media, would be a better comparison.

      Still like social media, data journalism is as much a motif for a lot of different debates in journalism and in that respect I know it’s a bit unfair to hang the whole democracy thing on it.

      I see what you’re saying about the balance between a voice for all and a voice for more but the idea of enfranchisement is one that makes me a bit uncomfortable. Just exactly is bestowing the franchise? Is it the media? I don’t think that’s an abstract thing in the case of data journalism. Enfranchisement is not a simply an automatic consequence. By enfranchising some do we disenfranchise others?

      None of this is necessarily a criticism. If data journalism is a cog in part in the engine of democratic process than so be it but I think it stands a little reflection beyond measuring its immediate successes. Surly that’s only half the data 🙂

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