One of the single most important changes in the world over the past quarter century has been how news companies operate. Where before the key to success was in reporting and accuracy, today it is in profit and shareholder value. People like Rupert Murdoch, Jonathan Harmsworth, and David Rowat Barclay and Frederick Hugh Barclay are seen as key figures in this move, creating vast media empires and making billions in the process.
Profits in themselves are certainly not negative, but the reality is that with many media companies now focussed on them, they have become the end goal rather than an added bonus. It has meant that headlines are designed to create sensation rather than accurately portray events. Given that negative headlines also tend to sell better in print and gain more clicks online, media companies are always looking at ways to provoke anger in their readers.
Over the past 12 months, one of the most common targets for this negativity has been data and it has created a dangerous public perception of it. The coverage has also created a dangerous precedent in both public humiliations and praise, both where it is valid and where it isn’t.
A prime example from the past year has been the tragic case of Joshua Brown, whose Tesla crashed whilst in autonomous driving mode. It was widely covered at the time as a huge failure of autonomous cars - a technology that relies heavily on data. Reporting at the time suggested a failure of the technology, which is true to an extent, but recent crash reports released show that Brown was given seven warnings to put his hands back in the wheel ahead of the fatal crash. In fact, of the entire 37 minute journey, Brown was holding the steering wheel for only 25 seconds. Given that this was such a big story at the time, it is surprising that the coverage of this has been limited in comparison. With so many people having seen the original story of the fault, there will be few who realize that it was not purely the fault of the technology.
However, it is not only the negativity towards data that is negatively impacting the data community, it is the praise of poor practices that puts a wider variety of companies and organizations at risk.
For instance, the bitter 2016 US election had a huge focus on data and took a very politicized view of data security in particular. Hillary Clinton was criticized throughout the campaign by Donald Trump and his supporters due to her use of a private email server whilst Secretary of State. John Podesta, Hillary Clinton’s campaign chairman, also had his emails hacked and leaked across the internet. These issues created different headlines dependent on who you supported, which essentially meant that the idea of data became partisan. For many the theft of these emails was abhorrent and anti-democratic, for others it was a heroic act to create transparency amongst people trying to get elected.
The theft of data has become something heroic to many on both sides of the political spectrum, with Edward Snowden, Chelsea Manning, and Julian Assange all household names thanks to either their roles in the theft or dissemination of classified information. Regardless of whether these leaks are morally justified (and in many cases they are) the media portrayal of these people means that others feel more comfortable doing the same thing, even if it is hugely damaging. For instance, Reality Leigh Winner, who leaked information on Russia hacking voting machines ahead of the 2016 election, could have jeopardized any investigation into it, and also got arrested and is likely to face several years in jail as a result.
Data is now big business in the media with headlines likely to sell papers and gain clicks, but with this public focus on data comes negativity or promotion of potentially damaging behavior. How we solve this is a difficult question to answer, but we will certainly need to try.