Journalists who hack (and why you should be one)

Photo by theogeo (Lindsey Turner) from Flickr.

A basic level of digital literacy is essential to anyone working in media today, but some journalists’ computer skills are advanced enough to qualify them as hackers. Gaining access to access otherwise-obscured truths by working around flimsy firewalls or condensing and analyzing widely scattered data can produce stories of great value to the public. However, when these activities cross the line into criminal activity, the consequences can be dire. The News of the World‘s phone-hacking scandal is a clear-cut example of journalism gone bad, but the ethics involved in other cases of hacking are harder to judge.

Writing for, Jesse Brown tells the story of Dutch journalist Brenno de Winter, who is facing a six-year prison sentence after hacking new transit-payment cards the government was rolling out and exposing the system’s security holes. He likely saved the government a whole whack of cash, since those holes would have made it easy for people to fraudulently reload the cards and ride for free. But, as Brown asks, when is a hacker a journalist? And does exposing the system’s weakness, in what most people would see as the public’s interest, deserve the same punishment as defrauding that system for one’s own benefit?

Journalists bending the law to get stories is nothing new. Time and again, reporters have assumed other identities to access people and information they otherwise couldn’t. The difference is today, using online resources, it’s easier and, when some sources are increasingly difficult to get hold of, it’s sometimes the only way to get a story. Those people and that information, after some creative programming, can be a mouse-click away, and so the temptation for journalists to test the limits of the law is that much greater.

Of course, “hacking” is a loaded term, often used in a negative sense, so it’s important to say here that journalists employing their computer skills to uncover important stories can be an entirely legal and incredibly valuable strategy. Hacks/Hackers is a grassroots organization that recognizes this value and is aiming to “create a network of journalists (‘hacks’) and technologists (‘hackers’) who rethink the future of news and information.” There are Hacks/Hackers chapters in Europe, South America, in 15 cities in the U.S., and four cities in Canada (Montreal, Ottawa, Toronto, Vancouver).

So, yes, the skills of a hacker can be used for both admirable and nefarious purposes. But, once you get past the negative connotation associated with “hackers” and their lifestyle, it’s worth noting the growth of Hacks/Hackers and the increasingly popularity of hacking how-tos for journalists. They are strong indicators that pursuing such skills, even at a basic level, is a worthwhile pursuit for any journalist with an eye on the future of the field.

Posted on August 18, 2011 at 11:58 am by editor · · Tagged with: ,

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