Carleton University Student Blog Series: Refueling the Journalism Industry with Open Government Data

Carleton University undergraduate students in Ottawa, Canada, are studying the link between communication and open government. In the class, the students examine how communication can be used to improve governance and to foster a more collaborative relationship between governments and citizens. This series of blog posts is related to a range of topics concerning the issues that challenge open government in Canada and around the world.

In August of last year, the New York Times (NYT) and other news outlets wrote articles to remind the public of the value of free press, arguing that some of the most damaging attacks on the press come from the government itself. While they did not refer to any nation in particular, their focus was on the rhetoric often used by contemporary governments which often brand journalists as harmful to the state. So what mechanisms can journalists use to combat their supposed lack of accountability? The OGP provides a number of principles that could work.

The modern open government initiative is particularly poised to pump new blood into the journalism industry. Open government  ideas are helpful to the journalism industry. For example, if a journalist is under fire from an administration who is attempting to undermine their work, then pointing to open data published by that very administration could be an effective counter. Furthermore, if not directly adapted, a side effect might occur when trying to further open government mandates; as governments continue to implement open principles through their operations and data, the journalism industry will benefit. Increasing the availability and efficiency of operations like access to information, or implementing transparency measures to proactively show accountability are some examples of tangential benefits.

Methods of Fact Finding

There are many different methods which journalists use to conduct a story, and the below graphic is a brief glimpse into the range of activities journalists may use.

 

Each is given a proper explanation here, but in short they all carry some value and are appropriate in different circumstances. I bring this up because open data, specifically published by the government, is typically considered proactive journalism (where reporters can step away from the news agenda and identify stories that would otherwise go untold). Due to the sheer bulk of information being published, operations like seeking information and investigating patterns in the data are the only meaningful way to interact with open government data. Journalists would ideally want to get as close to the centre of the bullseye as possible and do just that.

This theorized increase in quality would also extend to something that has already been briefly mentioned above: that it would be increasingly difficult for a government to call ‘liar’ on a journalist who used open government data as a source. Of course, this isn’t the be all end all as any data can be misinterpreted or bent to a particular agenda. However, the nature of open data means attempts to misconstrue such data would be quickly spotted by others, providing an extra layer of scrutiny to the journalistic process as well. Even still, this would not be an easy or simple task. Facts are not a matter of belief, and responsible journalism ensures this remains apparent in public discourse. These efforts would carry greater weight if derived from open government data.

 

Skills Gap

You may have been wondering why, if so simple an adoption, have journalists not taken to using open government data more steadily. There are a couple of explanations for this. The first being that a different set of technical and analytical skills are needed to contend and effectively interact with open data, especially at the scale that is being witnessed with open government mandates. Data literacy is a difficult and time-consuming skill  to master, so while data journalism has taken modest steps, it is no where near the maturity or adoption level required to make strides in the dominant news media discourse.

Secondly, journalists are not often thought of as end-users when governments develop, publish or engage with their (open) data. An example of which is seen on data.gov, where the mission statement does not attempt to consider any impact their efforts could have on news media. To be fair, such data may not meet the needs of journalists who often rely on timely quotes or regular releases of information and since data is often not released in a timely fashion, this makes it difficult for journalists to use.  However, this has not prevented journalists from making Freedom of Information (FOI) or Access to Information and Privacy (ATIP) requests, in the American and Canadian contexts respectively, that are known to take a long time. Therefore, as sources of information become increasingly digital it becomes more beneficial for journalists to become data savvy and exploit the vast amounts of information freely available. Additionally, news media ought to get just as much (if not more) attention from open government initiatives when potential end-users are being considered.

To finish, I hope that more conversation about the role of the press in open government is had by the respective stakeholders. To date, most countries have no discernible alliance between the media and open data advocates, which given their compatibility, is a shame. However, flexibility is required on both sides and while there shouldn’t be conflicting paradigms, it is the nature of government to be politicized and the nature of the news to have agendas. One thing is for certain though, if open data can bring accountability and transparency to government, then why can’t it do the same for journalism?

 

Authors: Lucas J. Notte