Defying their stereotype as methodical, emotionless nerds, data journalists at the National Institute for Computer-Assisted Reporting (NICAR) have erupted in anger over a proposed shirt design they’ve accused of being sexist.
The shirt, which featured a woman’s bare shoulders — yes, shoulders — was deemed to be sexist by members of NICAR’s online mailing list.
This strangely Taliban-esque outcry took place after Society for Professional Journalists (SPJ) regional director Michael Koretzky suggested that journalists should partner with professional designers to ensure that their data holds the attention of more readers.
To illustrate his point, Koretzky highlighted a number of designs submitted to NICAR’s 2016 data journalism-themed T-shirt design contest, which he described as “underwhelming.”
All hell broke loose when Koretzky submitted his own T-shirt design, which featured the logo of Ashley Madison, an extra-marital dating site which hit the headlines last year after its user data was compromised.
The story represented an ethical conundrum for data journalists, who had to juggle the obligation to report on the data breach and the obligation not to unduly violate peoples’ privacy.
However, members of the NICAR mailing list did not appreciate Koretzky’s subtle referencing of the controversial story. Instead, they accused the shirt of being “sexist” and “objectifying women.”
Data journalist and standup comic Andy Boyle was first into the breach, telling Koretzky: “I don’t think NICAR should resort to objectifying women as a way to sell t-shirts, which your design clearly attempts to do. It’s pretty gross, and not indicative of what the NICAR community is all about.”
Readers will of course decide for themselves if naked shoulders really constitutes “objectification.” There are undoubtedly a number of Sharia-governed states in the Middle East who would sympathise with Boyle’s perspective. Even on the mailing list, however, Boyle was not alone.
Angela Woodall, a self-described “award-winning cross-platform journalist” said that while the design was “amusing,” women might get “pretty annoyed.” Olga Pierce, Deputy Data Editor of ProPublica, complained that Koretzky was “trolling.”
Koretzky, for his art, was flabbergasted by the response. “What kind of journalist gets uncomfortable over the Ashley Madison logo?” he told Breitbart Tech. “God forbid she has to cover a protest or venture into a bar.” Nevertheless, the SPJ regional director decided to unsubscribe from the mailing list before matters escalated.
The other members of NICAR’s mailing list — trained tech journalists, all of them — forgot to unsubscribe Koretzky from their replies. This allowed him to witness the following exercise in professionalism, which included the data editor of ProPublica, Jeff Larson, New York Times data journalist Jacob Harris, Seattle Times data journalist Thomas Wilburn (who said he was “okay” with public shaming), and Stanford journalism lecturer Dan Nguyen:
Adam Schweigert: well that was awkward.
Jeff Larson: Hey Mike, not at all sad to see you go. Tootles.
Amanda Hickman: He’s gone, though, right?
Jacob Harris: I just think it was unfair of all of you to call him a sexist troll only because he deliberately posted a sexist image to make everybody angry.
Sean Sposito: at what point do we decide to stop publicly shaming people… stop piling on… it’s over.
Thomas Wilburn: I’m okay with a little more public shaming, personally.
Kate Kelly: We are such an amazing group of journalists and we shouldn’t sink to this level on what ought to be a professional and respectful place to ask questions. I encourage college students and new journalists to sign up to this particular list-serv, but now I’m embarrassed by what they’re reading today.
Dan Nguyen: I know we already said to stop piling on, but just wanted to say that I appreciate the variety of people who did. Nothing says “dead community” like throwing up a wall of apathy toward someone actively trying to be an unapologetic unmitigated asshole. FWIW I can’t think of a time when someone was so blatantly divisive on NICAR-L.
Brian Bardwell: Am I the only one who thinks the tenor has reached a point that is unduly self-congratulatory? The objections to the imagery are pretty reasonable, but it’s fair to note that he was using what I’m pretty sure was the Ashley Madison banner, playing off a serious data story.
The episode provides an interesting window into the minds of America’s tech journalism elite. It appears that they don’t know how list-servs work, they can’t take criticism, and they’re all so terrified of appearing sexist that they’ll throw a strop over a dating site’s logo.
Disclosure: I helped Michael Koretzky organise a debate on ethics in games journalism in August 2014.