The 2016 Academy Award for Best Picture went to Spotlight. The movie chronicles the research and reporting done by a team of investigative journalists at The Boston Globe (who won a Pulitzer Prize for uncovering rampant sexual abuse of children by Roman Catholic priests in Massachusetts). If you’ve seen the film, you may have been struck by the cool demeanor and detached reserve of the reporters. However, objectivity is what we have come to expect from these unsung heroes who shed light on events that might otherwise go unnoticed. As Sam Roe wrote in the Columbia Journalism Review (CJR) article (“Could Collaborating With Scientists Be the Next Step for Investigative Reporting?”), for many years, “investigative reporters have approached stories with a similar mindset: Find the bad guys,” and “copy down what people said and leave it at that.”
Big Data, the big disrupter of all industries, might alter that approach. The collection of massive amounts of data has caused practitioners in many fields to reconsider how they do business. In politics, campaign managers are partnering with data scientists in order to target certain voters with specific ads. Insurance company executives are analyzing purchasing patterns of policyholders in order to predict risky behaviors. And every day, journalists are reporting on Big Data initiatives. But what if reporters could partner with data scientists on the projects themselves, documenting each stage of the project as it unfolds, citing setbacks and false starts as well as hypotheses that didn’t pan out-but, ultimately, uncovering the answers in real time? Is it ethical for investigative reporters to push the boundaries of their roles by collaborating with the main characters of their stories in order to affect change?