Data Journalism and the Law

Baranetsky, D. Victoria

While data journalism has been the hot topic of various recent reports, no studies have discussed how the changes in journalistic storytelling may create new legal considerations for journalists. This report aims to help journalists, lawyers, and academics understand the changes taking place in media law as a result of both the growing volume of data in our information economy, and the the seismic shifts occurring within journalism and technology. By examining developments in newsgathering law, the Freedom of Information Act, and laws involved in leak investigations, this research underscores worrisome shifts in the law, as well as gray areas where reform would strengthen the rights of a free press and journalists.

In its first part, the report looks at emerging concerns over data journalism projects that could trigger the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act (CFAA), 18 U.S.C. §1030(a)(4)i for scraping, a data collection technique that usually relies on automation—through bots, crawlers, or applications—to extract data from a website. As data collection becomes increasingly important for investigative journalists in particular, legal experts worry about civil and criminal penalties that exist under the statute—which has been described by some First Amendment advocates as unconstitutionally vague. In reviewing the history and case law of the CFAA in relationship to journalism, the research offers practical tips and various legal considerations on the issue.

Next, the report discusses troubling trends arising under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) in the digital age, as the amount of government information held in databases and government logs grows, and the need for transparency is crucial. Lastly, it reviews data’s impact on laws affecting whistleblowers. In the past decade, we’ve seen more leak prosecutions in the United States than all those combined in the country’s history. This, of course, occurs at a time when there is more information than ever before for whistleblowers to share.


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More About This Work

Academic Units
Tow Center for Digital Journalism
Tow Center for Digital Journalism, Columbia University
Tow Center for Digital Journalism Publications
Published Here
December 12, 2018