Data Journalism: Is the Norm of Objectivity Already Subverted?

Having had experience in journalism, I have had the chance to witness and observe the extraordinarily rapid changes that are occurring due to recent technological advances. Now cooperating with Youth Time as a freelance writer to keep that journalism spirit alive, I understand the profound impact digital technology currently has, and has had for some years now for that matter, in reshaping the traditional pace of journalism. Its impact does not end just with the question of pace. In fact, technology is almost entirely changing the ways people do the things they have been doing for a while now.

Through this article, we will try to examine and discuss in more depth the impact that technology is having in journalism alongside the changing role of the audience, Citizen Journalism, democracy, internet usage, the public interest, and other interesting issues.

Data journalism: serving the public interest instead of objectivity

Jingrong Tong, Senior Lecturer in Digital News Cultures at the University of Sheffield, in her book Digital Technology and Journalism, discusses the impact of digital technology on the field.

Jingrong Tong / Photo: Alfred

In responding to Youth Time’s question as to what is the biggest change in journalism that she has witnessed, Tong emphasizes that:

“The most significant changes that journalism has experienced and is still experiencing today take place in the relationship between journalism and its audience, along with the skills and tools journalists need for reporting”.

However, she continues by noting that “these changes result not merely from technological advances but also from the interaction between technological progress and social change such as audiences’ lifestyles and cultural tastes”.

Although citizen journalism is in its heyday, as a result of intensely growing online platforms for exchanging and disseminating information, Mrs. Tong calls for caution and explains the downside of this situation.

Social media platforms definitely provide alternative channels for citizens to make their voices heard, especially during crises or in authoritarian countries where freedom of speech is scarcely recognized or does not exist at all.

However, there are several issues bearing on this.

First of all, not all voices can be heard on the internet. Second, not all voices are democratically meaningful; and there is a prevalence of entertainment and apolitical content published by internet users on the internet. Therefore we cannot automatically equate internet users with ‘citizen journalists’. Third, the genuineness of the content produced and disseminated by users needs to be checked and tested”.

She elaborates further, in a piece that she co-authored titled “The Inapplicability of Objectivity: Understanding the Work of Data Journalism”, where it is claimed that serving the public interest and democracy is a more appropriate principle than objectivity for data journalism.

This is because data journalism can significantly contribute to serving the democratic role of the press. However, it would be unfair to reckon its value by using the principle of objectivity, as objectivity is inapplicable to data journalism.

Data and algorithms are subjective. While verifying the credibility of data is difficult, there is an imbalance in data access and uncertainty in understanding the context of data and algorithms.

Respecting “design subjectivity”, the whole process of data reporting is a knowledge construction process. For these reasons, serving the public interest and democracy would be a more appropriate principle than objectivity for data journalism.” she explains.

Technology offers journalism a place to unfold, not the other way around

Barbie Zelizer, professor at the University of Pennsylvania and Director of the Center for Media at Risk, says that technology is a factor that enables the craft of journalism to take shape in different ways.

Barbie Zelizer / Photo: Kyle Cassidy

As such, digital technology is the most recent manifestation of a long line of technological developments in the news business, one that follows print and radio and television, to name the most obvious. Digital technology is faster and larger, and thus it seems better.

But much about journalists – their occupational identities, curiosity, and initiative—takes place regardless of technology.

So it’s important to remember that technology offers journalism a place to unfold, not the other way around,” says Zelizer in an exclusive interview for Youth Time magazine.

In her article,“Why Journalism Is about More Than Digital Technology” she argues in favor of the belief that journalism gives technology purpose, shape, and significance, not the other way around.

Technology of any sort allows journalists to operate in a new medium, with new conditions and new conventions. But journalism comes first, in that it repeatedly accommodates a long-held set of conventions to the new technological medium.

Digital technology will give way to something else, but some form of journalism will always be around. Journalism is much more resilient than we credit it with being,” she further elaborates.

Since Professor Zelizer has a background in journalism, and in the academic field of journalism, she shares the biggest change in journalism that she witnessed during all her active years.

The biggest change in journalism is the change in the authority it commands. Certainly, technology has been part of that change, but so has a whole slew of other factors of a political, economic, legal, occupational and in some places, religious and military, nature.

While there are advantages in a dip in authority that forces practitioners to sharpen their provision of news, we also tend to load too much on journalists’ plates, as if they alone can change the precarious world we live in right now. They are part of the problem but not all of it, and the sooner we realize that the better will be the chance of fostering different conditions of existence”, she says.

Citizen Journalism, in its many forms, is valuable, but it can’t exist alone. We know that much that goes on in social media mimics what goes on in traditional platforms. That in itself is data that the craft of journalism and all that goes with it needs to be included in the picture”, she adds.

It has never been easier to find a story to tell, but not necessarily to tell it better

Donika Lamaxhema, a broadcast Journalist for many years, with a Communication MA from Westminster University, explains why according to her this unstoppable technological development might have a negative impact on journalism.

Journalist Donika Lamaxhema
Donika Lamaxhema / Photo: Granit Mamaj

It has not only transformed traditional journalism, but it has also created new forms of journalism, less trustworthy.

Based on my experience, people no longer believe in what we do, and they are afraid of TV, newspapers and other forms of traditional media. In my opinion, I would blame social media, which even while creating a platform to connect people and establish new ways of communication somehow deformed the world of news and the truth!”, she says in her response for Youth Time, while adding that the link between journalism and digital technology remains strong to this day.

Lamaxhema continues by taking us back some years ago – to a time when one had to wait a whole day to receive the news.

Once I used to watch the news, read a story in the newspaper and wait over the next day to do the same, I was not this loaded with information”, she recalls.

“Now, I get the news every time I check my accounts on any platform. Nowadays, everyone who has a story to tell can tell it, regardless if it is true or not. Being heard is a great thing, however, even freedom of speech must have its limits. […].

Nevertheless, from my experience, I can say that it has never been easier to find a story to tell, to find sources and connect the dots as the journalism field asks us to do, than now. It is not better, just easier”, she highlights.

She is of the opinion that social media via online platforms can be used by citizens to be heard, yet they do not necessarily constitute the best means of doing so.

According to her, social media is mainly used by the people who are already keen to speak up; the same would speak up one way or another regardless.

Lately we witness virtual activism, some people are interested in spreading and giving opinions online and also there are people doing citizen journalism. However, when mere citizens get involved in journalism, we are only going to hear one side of the story.

This might harm the one essential mission of journalism: telling the truth.” she concludes.

Youth Time Magazine prepared for you how to distingue true VS false facts. You can read more here.

Title Photo: Photos: Shutterstock / Collage: Martina Advaney

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