Opinion: Are hacker journalists really journalists?
The first time I worked in a newsroom I never paid much attention to them. Sitting in their corner cubicles, out of sight of where my own desk was. I saw them once or twice as they walked past me on the way to get their coffee. Yet the longer I worked there, the more I realised they were part of the journalism process, working in tandem with the journalists to get stories out. The “IT guys” we called them.
I first came across the term “hacker journalist” while reading Nikki Usher’s Interactive Journalism (2016). When I heard “hacker journalist”, I imagined a guy in a hoodie working behind a computer breaking into government websites to gather information—someone similar to Edward Snowden or Julian Assange. While these may be extreme examples of a hacker journalist, Usher describes them simply as “those who come from a programming background and are now part of the newsroom.” They bring their problem-solving skills and new ways of thinking to a newsroom. The same way a photojournalist would tell stories through a camera, the hacker journalist tells stories through code. Programmer journalists are similar to hacker journalists, the key difference being that programmer journalists come from a journalism background before learning to code.
The Knight Foundation even goes so far as claiming that the hacker journalist is “Journalist 2.0”, a combination of the traditional journalist and an IT guru. They paint a picture of a process-oriented, problem-solving whiz kid sporting headphones and "chill clothes", and that of a formal-attired, storyteller/investigator journalist who merge together to form this new hybrid super-species of tech-savvy journalists.
The hacker journalist supposedly breathes fresh life into the newsroom. By nature, hackers enjoy experimenting and innovating. “The attitude is also one that ushers in a desire for doing work as playful and fun,” says Usher. “They look at journalism as information and journalism as a problem that can be solved. These are not ways of thinking that have normally been found in newsrooms; they come instead from the programming culture that now feeds into newsrooms as code becomes more integral in daily news work, and coders more ingrained in the life of a newsroom.”
Yet this starts to blur the line for the definition of a journalist. Many journalists and scholars have mixed views on defining what a journalist really is. Panelist at the World Journalism Education Congress Alan Knight identifies journalists as having a particular set of standards, such as a professional code of ethics and the need to seek accuracy. Alex Gerlis of the BBC College of Journalism stresses the need for formal journalism training to be called a journalist. What does this mean for the traditional roles of a journalist as well? Can a hacker journalist be considered a watchdog, gate-keeper and public servant? Or does he/she fall in line with the new roles of journalists as outlined by Kovach and Rosenstiel such as authenticator, sense maker and smart aggregator?
Some hacker journalists at The Guardian even refrain from calling themselves journalists. In Interactive Journalism, one of The Guardian’s employees was quoted as saying: “as a developer I see my contribution to the content production and the content of the story as an application of technical knowledge and web text and html to make more complete interactives to visualize something and make something interactive—I suppose I am doing journalism but I am not a journalist by background.” Yet if we fail to consider hacker journalists as journalists, we are ignoring the value they bring to the editorial process. “The process of creating an interactive often requires hacker journalists to dig into data, gather information, and render it ready for news consumption,” says Usher. “This collating and collecting is a critical element of journalism…without them the final output—the piece of journalism—would not be possible.”
We must be wary of how we use the term “hacker journalist”, however. The word hacker in itself carries negative connotations, especially in places such as the Middle East, where it is likened to “the kind of anti-social efforts Syrian computer terrorists continually engage in to undermine Al Jazeera English content,” says Mohammad el-Haddad, a data journalist at Al Jazeera English. Similarly, the Wall Street Journal refrain from using the term as it can be likened to the UK phone hacking scandal, where journalists essentially “hacked” into the voicemails of potential sources. Despite the different meanings associated with it, the term "hack" or "hacker" as defined by the Internet Users' Glossary simply means “a person who delights in having an intimate understanding of the internal workings of a system, computers and computer networks in particular."
As journalism becomes a more tech-entwined industry, I think it will become increasingly important to have these hacker and programmer journalists on board. Learning to program and code is a skill I believe every journalist should learn, whether it be just basic HTML to navigate and modify websites, or more in-depth coding for data crunching and creating algorithms to sift through heavy loads of data. Journalism schools should also have mandatory programming courses, that way the new wave of journalists stepping foot into the industry will do so with added skills and fresh ways of thinking compared to the older newsroom folks. With the introduction of AI that can potentially replace jobs, it will be important for the journalists working alongside this AI to understand how its algorithms function, rather than seeing it as a doomsday machine coming to annihilate their jobs.
Can hacker journalists really be called journalists? I think they are more than just journalists, or at least if we’re thinking in the traditional sense of the term. I think hacker journalists are a start of something new—a new type of journalist with a skillset that will be invaluable in the years to come. In the future the question will no longer be “are hackers journalists?” but rather “if a journalist cannot hack, is he really a journalist?”
Al-Jamea, Sohail et al. (2013, Aug 10). The perils at Great Falls. Retrieved from http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-srv/special/local/the-perils-of-great-falls/#great-falls
Knight, A., Gerlis, A., and George, C. (2008). “Who is a Journalist?”. Journalism Studies, 9:1, 117-131.
Usher, Nikki (2016). Interactive Journalism: Hackers, Data, and Code. Champaign: University of Illinois Press.
Washington Post Graphics (2013, Sep 3). Behind the scenes: The perils at Great Falls. Retrieved from https://postgraphics.tumblr.com/post/60212984234/behind-the-scenes-the-perils-at-great-falls