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Ethical Pitfalls of Data Digging in Journalism
Unformatted Document Text:  Ethical Pitfalls of Data Digging series starting in 2008 found that nearly all career employees of the Long Island Railroad who retired immediately began receiving federal disability income (Willis, Wilson) prompting insurers to investigate railroad retirees’ claims and make changes in eligibility and payouts. While database reporting can hasten important, positive changes, it can also bring serious problems. When the Muncie, Ind., Star-Press ran the names, photos, and addresses of 63 registered sex offenders on its front page in 2004, five of the sex offenders lost their jobs within one day and the community was sharply divided about the paper’s decision (Kusmer). In another case, days after Cleveland’s Plain Dealer published the names of all citizens with permits to carry concealed weapons in 2004, a local businessman whose name was on the newspaper’s list was killed in what police said was an attempt to defend himself. Gun rights advocates attributed the businessman’s death to the paper “outing” the handgun license holder (Garvas). Data mining also is expensive and, for a changing industry in a sagging economy, the investment in database reporting can be challenging. “For every Watergate expose that bring(s) renown and readers to a Washington Post, there are dozens of other investigative reports – often equally time-consuming and expensive – that pass largely unnoticed…. (Mecklin). Such expensive and time-consuming reporting must then be relentlessly accurate, the data absolutely reliable and the analysis exact. Technology may accelerate the positive and exacerbate the negative outcomes of database journalism. Database reporting posted online has the potential for great 7

Authors: Leach, Jan. and Gilbert, Jeremy.
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background image
Ethical Pitfalls of Data Digging
series starting in 2008 found that nearly all career employees of the Long Island 
Railroad who retired immediately began receiving federal disability income (Willis, 
Wilson) prompting insurers to investigate railroad retirees’ claims and make changes 
in eligibility and payouts.
While database reporting can hasten important, positive changes, it can also 
bring serious problems. When the Muncie, Ind., Star-Press ran the names, photos, and 
addresses of 63 registered sex offenders on its front page in 2004, five of the sex 
offenders lost their jobs within one day and the community was sharply divided about 
the paper’s decision (Kusmer).
In another case, days after Cleveland’s Plain Dealer published the names of all 
citizens with permits to carry concealed weapons in 2004, a local businessman whose 
name was on the newspaper’s list was killed in what police said was an attempt to 
defend himself. Gun rights advocates attributed the businessman’s death to the 
paper “outing” the handgun license holder (Garvas). 
Data mining also is expensive and, for a changing industry in a sagging 
economy, the investment in database reporting can be challenging. “For every 
Watergate expose that bring(s) renown and readers to a Washington Post, there are 
dozens of other investigative reports – often equally time-consuming and expensive – 
that pass largely unnoticed…. (Mecklin). Such expensive and time-consuming 
reporting must then be relentlessly accurate, the data absolutely reliable and the 
analysis exact.
Technology may accelerate the positive and exacerbate the negative outcomes 
of database journalism. Database reporting posted online has the potential for great 
7


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