The DC Madam’s phone list and what it means to be a journalist

Journalism is not a profession. That is one of the first things they taught me in Brandeis’s journalism program. Professions are closed shops patrolled by gatekeepers and licensing boards. Professions demand esoteric knowledge and specialized education. All journalism requires is command of the written language.

So “real” journalists, those who take their jobs seriously, believe strongly that journalism is an essential public good, a vital component of a democracy, and its very democratic nature, free of gatekeepers, is one of its greatest assets. Because of that, serious journalism involves complex ethics, frequent moral judgments, and large amounts of discretion. There are plenty of pundits and commentators and hacks who are not real journalists, but the real guys believe these things.

So along comes the web, along comes a new breed of citizen journalist. Its easier for people, especially those with some computer skills, to mine data and find connections and reveal secrets that in previous times would have been left safely buried. But these new citizen journalists are often inexperienced, often looking for the quick break, often have not taken the time to ponder the ethics and the morals and the discretion. A little while back tech blog Engadget published a huge “scoop” about delays in Apple’s product offerings. Stock markets moved on the news. Chaos was caused. It was a hoax. The tiniest bit of vetting, the smallest phone call or email follow-up would have revealed the hoax and stopped the virtual presses, but Engadget was more excited about their scoop than they were worried about printing the truth.

This is going to happen a lot in the next few years. There are going to be a lot of mistakes.

And so on the one hand I’m excited to say I’ve had a hand in an interesting new website that is a somewhat unique tool for the aspiring citizen journalist. But at the same time, of course, I’m worried about those who might abuse the data we’re publishing, data gleaned from the “DC Madam” and her phone records. Some of the calls were business, some were private. Some are to restaurants, and to travel agents, and to her mother. And some are to big-name capital hill staffers. And some are to small-time businessmen and random Joes.

ABC News got the list first, or at least part of it, back in May, and by all accounts they spent a lot of time going through it (although not necessarily in the same way we are, creating a searchable database). They found a lot of interesting info, according to various accounts, but very little that they considered so important to the public discourse that it was worth publishing. You can ruin lives, after all. Some would argue the person who broke the law and called the escort service in the first place did their own life ruining. But still. ABC knew they had something powerful, and they treated it with due reverence.

And when they didn’t come through with some good scoops, Deborah Jeane Palfrey released the whole list online to the public. Maybe that’s what discretion gets you these days?

So now we’ve put it all out there. Full of disclaimers and as accurate as we know how to make it, but its still out there. And while we’ve tried to limit false positives (not displaying calls less than one minute long, not displaying calls that appear only once or twice on the list), its still possible that someone with looser ethics could make a mistake, could take a piece of inaccurate or irrelevant data and publish something harmful. But I guess when it comes down to it, if this whole citizen journalism thing is going to work out, we need to take these risks, we as a society need to tolerate some error, some misjudgments. Because in the end we are strengthening our democracy every time we put the data out in the hands of the interested public and give them the tools to draw their own conclusions. And expanding the journalist sphere, in my opinion, is well worth these risks.

Disclaimer: I am speaking only for myself in this entry. What I have written here may not reflect the opinions of the other (currently anonymous) individuals involved in creating the web site and certainly do not reflect the opinions of my employer.

Update (7/12 8:01am): This has all gotten very big, very fast. 80,000 page views yesterday, our second full day in existence. We still haven’t quite figured out what we’re doing with the data or how to best use it. We’ve gotten inquiries from major media and bloggers and local journalists around the country looking for more specific info and better ways to search. We’ve improved our scanning and cataloguing but not all of those improvements are yet reflected on the site. And while the whole thing has kept ballooning, I’ve gotten a bit burned out, decided to take last night off while my colleagues diligently worked away. We talked about an endgame, a goal. We didn’t come up with any conclusions. We want to limit any collateral damage our service could cause. We’re not sure how.