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Ethical Pitfalls of Data Digging in Journalism
Unformatted Document Text:  Ethical Pitfalls of Data Digging are you serving with this information? The Los Angeles Times created a database to accompany its series about teacher effectiveness. The database, called 'Grading the Teachers' won first place in the 2010 Philip Meyer awards. The judges described the project as "a first-rate example of strong watchdog story-telling combined with innovative use of social science methods. Indeed, the point of the project was the failure of Los Angeles school officials to use effective methods to measure the performance of classroom teachers." The judges noted the massive size of the effort -- effort -- r rating — rating and identifying 6,000 teachers — and that the teachers’ union fought back. The stories and data had impact, affecting negotiations with the teachers’ union to use the newspaper’s statistical method in teacher evaluations (Romenesko). However, at least one of the named teachers "was depressed about his score on a teacher-rating database," said California teachers’ union President A.J. Duffy in an interview with the Los Angeles Times. Based on The Times' data, the teacher in question "was rated ‘average’ in his ability to raise students' English scores and ‘less effective’ in his ability to raise math scores. Overall, he was rated slightly ‘less effective’ than his peers." In late September, about a month after the database was made public, the teacher committed suicide (Zavis). While the death of the teacher was not directly tied to the Times' project, it illustrates the potential issue when individuals in a larger dataset are easily identifiable. “In a case like that, where the data is personal to someone, there needs to be a pretty robust discussion (in the newsroom) about ‘Why do we need that?’ ” said Willis. He describes this philosophy as the “ethics of use.” It is not very different 18

Authors: Leach, Jan. and Gilbert, Jeremy.
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background image
Ethical Pitfalls of Data Digging
are you serving with this information?
The Los Angeles Times created a database to accompany its series about 
teacher effectiveness. The database, called 'Grading the Teachers' won first place in 
the 2010 Philip Meyer awards. The judges described the project as "a first-rate 
example of strong watchdog story-telling combined with innovative use of social 
science methods. Indeed, the point of the project was the failure of Los Angeles 
school officials to use effective methods to measure the performance of classroom 
teachers." The judges noted the massive size of the 
effort -- effort
 -- r
rating — rating 
and identifying 6,000 teachers — and that the teachers’ union fought back. The 
stories and data had impact, affecting negotiations with the teachers’ union to use 
the newspaper’s statistical method in teacher evaluations (Romenesko).
However, at least one of the named teachers "was depressed about his score 
on a teacher-rating database," said California teachers’ union President A.J. Duffy in 
an interview with the Los Angeles Times. Based on The Times' data, the teacher in 
question "was rated ‘average’ in his ability to raise students' English scores and ‘less 
effective’ in his ability to raise math scores. Overall, he was rated slightly ‘less 
effective’ than his peers." In late September, about a month after the database was 
made public, the teacher committed suicide (Zavis).
While the death of the teacher was not directly tied to the Times' project, it 
illustrates the potential issue when individuals in a larger dataset are easily 
identifiable. “In a case like that, where the data is personal to someone, there needs 
to be a pretty robust discussion (in the newsroom) about ‘Why do we need that?’ ” 
said Willis. He describes this philosophy as the “ethics of use.” It is not very different 
18


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