Show your (computational) work

“As computational techniques become more widespread, and newsrooms use fancier statistics to analyze data, there is a new genre of journalism emerging: the journalistic white paper.”

When I started writing methodologies to accompany my reporting on the What They Know project at The Wall Street Journal a decade ago, it was essentially a weird sidebar for nerds that just lived on the Digits tech blog.

Nowadays at The Markup, we write detailed methodologies that are as long as academic papers and often reviewed by academic experts before we publish. We also release the underlying datasets and code we use in our investigations, inviting policymakers, consumer activists, community organizers, and others to better understand and engage with our findings.

And we’re not alone. As computational techniques become more widespread, and newsrooms use fancier statistics to analyze data, there is a new genre of journalism emerging: the journalistic white paper.

At a moment when trust in journalism is at a low point, the rise of the journalistic white paper is a sign of how newsrooms are going to have to work harder to defend our work to our audiences. And honestly, that’s a good thing. 

As a field, we’re already rising to the occasion. And, in 2021, reporters will embrace their inner academic, newsrooms will assign more technical white papers to complement their narrative stories, and readers will welcome the behind the scenes look at how investigations come to life.

Modeling transparency not only builds trust in the media, but it also normalizes an expectation of openness in culture more broadly. That’s something journalism itself works towards and society will benefit from.

Julia Angwin is founder and editor-in-chief of The Markup.

When I started writing methodologies to accompany my reporting on the What They Know project at The Wall Street Journal a decade ago, it was essentially a weird sidebar for nerds that just lived on the Digits tech blog.

Nowadays at The Markup, we write detailed methodologies that are as long as academic papers and often reviewed by academic experts before we publish. We also release the underlying datasets and code we use in our investigations, inviting policymakers, consumer activists, community organizers, and others to better understand and engage with our findings.

And we’re not alone. As computational techniques become more widespread, and newsrooms use fancier statistics to analyze data, there is a new genre of journalism emerging: the journalistic white paper.

At a moment when trust in journalism is at a low point, the rise of the journalistic white paper is a sign of how newsrooms are going to have to work harder to defend our work to our audiences. And honestly, that’s a good thing. 

As a field, we’re already rising to the occasion. And, in 2021, reporters will embrace their inner academic, newsrooms will assign more technical white papers to complement their narrative stories, and readers will welcome the behind the scenes look at how investigations come to life.

Modeling transparency not only builds trust in the media, but it also normalizes an expectation of openness in culture more broadly. That’s something journalism itself works towards and society will benefit from.

Julia Angwin is founder and editor-in-chief of The Markup.

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