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Ethical Pitfalls of Data Digging in Journalism
Unformatted Document Text:  Ethical Pitfalls of Data Digging Examining the issue of data reliability reveals ethical concerns that mirror the reporting challenge of truth telling. Just because information is fielded and stored in a database does not make it true. Validating the data is a primary concern. “It’s frequently the case that datasets are incomplete, either by design or by accidental omission,” said Groskopf. “Data may be dated or irregularly updated. Worse yet, the meaning of fields within the dataset may be entirely oblique. Does the "date" column refer to the date a document was received or the date it was processed? Is "1/2" January, 2nd? February, 1st? One-half? Or perhaps it means 1st and 2nd? Or the second item in the first set?” (Groskopf) To correct for these the inaccuracies data-driven reporting requires a detailed schema or clear documentation. If that is absent, there are strategies that can be employed to validate data. At the Chicago Tribune the first step is to check with the source of the data, whether that is a reporter or an external source. Ideal data is ‘raw’ to avoid truncation resulting in inaccuracy. Embedded metadata or already public information — like data referenced in public documents — can provide clues about meaning or completeness. Truth-telling issues are not limited to issues of structure. Older data can mislead because of sociological or economic changes. Housing data more than five years old would suggest dramatically different stories than current data that reflects the crash in prices. Even more challenging is the possibility of deliberately manipulated data. Freedom of Information Act requests are critical tools for data gathering, but in rare instances even governmental data is not what it seems. When investigating corruption in West Virginia, Eric Eyre of the Charleston Gazette, discovered that the 14

Authors: Leach, Jan. and Gilbert, Jeremy.
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Ethical Pitfalls of Data Digging
Examining the issue of data reliability reveals ethical concerns that mirror the 
reporting challenge of truth telling. Just because information is fielded and stored in a 
database does not make it true. Validating the data is a primary concern. “It’s 
frequently the case that datasets are incomplete, either by design or by accidental 
omission,” said Groskopf. “Data may be dated or irregularly updated.  Worse yet, the 
meaning of fields within the dataset may be entirely oblique.  Does the "date" column 
refer to the date a document was received or the date it was processed? Is "1/2" 
January, 2nd? February, 1st? One-half? Or perhaps it means 1st and 2nd?  Or the 
second item in the first set?” (Groskopf)
To correct for these the inaccuracies data-driven reporting requires a detailed 
schema or clear documentation. If that is absent, there are strategies that can be 
employed to validate data. At the Chicago Tribune the first step is to check with the 
source of the data, whether that is a reporter or an external source. Ideal data is ‘raw’ 
to avoid truncation resulting in inaccuracy. Embedded metadata or already public 
information — like data referenced in public documents — can provide clues about 
meaning or completeness. 
Truth-telling issues are not limited to issues of structure. Older data can mislead 
because of sociological or economic changes. Housing data more than five years old 
would suggest dramatically different stories than current data that reflects the crash 
in prices. Even more challenging is the possibility of deliberately manipulated data. 
Freedom of Information Act requests are critical tools for data gathering, but in rare 
instances even governmental data is not what it seems. When investigating 
corruption in West Virginia, Eric Eyre of the Charleston Gazette, discovered that the 

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