The politics of data

Data visualizations can have agendas

Data journalism and information visualization is a burgeoning field. Every week, Between the Spreadsheets will analyze, interrogate, and explore emerging work in this area. Between the Spreadsheets is brought to you by CJR and Columbia’s Tow Center for Digital Journalism.

Data can be political. Numbers, facts, and figures are just as much a source as quotes from politicians, community leaders and academics. The graphics editor and data reporter have just as much responsibility to verify their numbers as the crime reporter does to accurately collect the facts of a police case.

In August, Al Jazeera ran a story about Israel’s policy of displacement in Palestine. The piece was an infographic designed to show the numbers of houses the Israeli army destroyed in the Gaza Strip. But Al Jazeera didn’t make the graphic entirely themselves: they collaborated with Visualizing Palestine, a social justice advocacy group that uses creative visualizations in their work about the Israel/Palestine conflict.

This isn’t an issue of posting content without attribution. Links back to the source are clear and it’s apparent that the piece is not solely Al Jazeera’s original reporting. The ethical question is whether a media outlet should be publishing infographics produced by social activism groups.

Its use raises two big red flags. The first is the reliability and presentation of Visualizing Palestine’s data. Its data collection may very well be robust, and its mission to illuminate otherwise underreported elements of this complex political situation noble, but it is still a social justice group with a political agenda. Anything from Visualizing Palestine that a media organization reproduces or collaborates with must be treated with clear regard to that position.

The second cause for concern is whether running infographics from advocacy groups perpetuates the problem of data accessibility. Bilal Randeree, web editor for Al Jazeera English, said it worked with Visualizing Palestine for technical reasons; Al Jazeera’s strength is editorial, while Visualizing Palestine brought superior design skills.

All the figures cited in the piece were checked by Al Jazeera. “I reviewed all the source documents to make sure that the numbers were all accurate and correctly sourced and credited,” Randeree said.

If the reason media outlets run these graphics is because they cannot get hold of the data themselves, then they are doing themselves a disservice by not highlighting that issue. In this case, however, the data sources came from publically available resources including Israeli and international NGOs. So the question is raised of why it’s even necessary to work with an advocacy group when a journalism outlet should have its own resources to collect and illustrate data.

Al Jazeera is not the only publication to work with Visualizing Palestine. In May, The Daily Beast posted a map about Israel’s segregated road systems. Al Jazeera did a better job of linking back to Visualizing Palestine’s site than the Beast, a positive step toward transparency to ensure these graphics are contextualized for the readers.

The parallel scenario to use of social advocacy infographics in print journalism is publishing campaign copy from an advocacy group directly into the body of an article without adding in anything that might be contrary to that stance. Citing the opinions and views of the advocacy group as one source in a body of work that engages with multiple voices is balanced journalism; not leaving room for the whole picture is biased.

Were Al Jazeera to use Visualizing Palestine’s data as one component of a bigger exercise in collecting data about this issue, that would have been a more balanced way to explore an issue with a multiplicity of opinions.

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Anna Codrea-Rado is a digital media associate at the Tow Center for Digital Journalism at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism. Follow her on Twitter @annacod. Tags: , ,