14 November 2007

Rogue databases and consent

Over on the ever-splendid JournoBiz forum, some fellow hacks were discussing something called Journa-list. I'd not heard of this before and my curiosity was piqued so off I went for a nose...

Journa-list is run by the Media Standards Trust, which in its own words describes itself as "an independent, not-for-profit organisation that aims to find ways to foster the highest standards of excellence in news journalism and ensure public trust in news is nurtured". Now, that's all well and good and I can't argue with that - standards matter in journalism and it's good there is some kind of body keeping tabs on things.

But my hackles are raised. MST's Journa-list database is being compiled without consent of those journalists it is listing. I ran a search on myself and, sure enough, I was there. Except I hadn't asked to be on it and the entry on me lists only one article anyway, which is hardly accurate. I have to question the ethics of gathering such data without consent by an organisation that claims to uphold standards of excellence in the industry. I am much more in favour of a voluntary database of the sort Journalist Michael Cross is proposing.

This is not the first time, alas, that I have been listed on a database without my permission or even knowledge. A year or so ago, I was emailed by a company that was inviting me to upgrade my listing on its media database. What database, I wondered? I took a look and was unhappy to find my details had been lifted from somewhere else without my agreement. A bit of investigation revealed that most of the other hacks on there had one (paid for) database in common, so it was obvious what had been trawled. On that occasion, I made a complaint to the Information Commissioner's Office, but not before I was threatened with legal action by the perpetrators for bringing the situation to the attention of other journalists.

More recently, googling my phone number revealed I'd been listed on a commercial database of businesses owned by a very well-known publisher. Again, it took a bit of detective work to track down who I needed to speak to to get myself removed.

As a freelance, I like to retain some control over where I am listed. I pay to be on several highly reputable databases, and these are the only ones I want to be on. I do not want to be listed by anyone else and it infuriates me that I have to search for myself regularly on the net to check that I'm not showing up on something I've not consented to.

And as a journalist committed to upholding professional standards, including ethical ones, I find it particularly odious that others in the media seem to have no qualms in breaching the Data Protection Act or behaving otherwise unethically when it comes to the issue of consent.


Juliet said...

This is most disturbing - thanks for highlighting the situation and for naming names. Appalling that you were threatened by the previous perpetrators you encountered. I'm off to Google myself now to check that I'm not listed anywhere I don't want to be!

Anonymous said...

I’ve been aware of the Media Standards Trust site since it launched in May, and I have to admit to being bemused by this. Seems like a total non-issue to me.

All MST is doing is listing articles published in the national press. It does this by checking the newspaper websites each day, and pulling that information into a database. Software analyses each article to come up with the author and the topic of the article.

Now, there are some weaknesses in the software – it can’t cope with different versions of the same name, and lots of their articles have been missed. MST is asking hacks to let them know when this happens.

What I just don’t get is how saying “Jane wrote an article on Y in The Sun” or “John writes a lot about government” is a bad thing. They’re not reproducing the work, commenting on the work or selling on any information – they’re simply recording what’s in the papers each day and who wrote it. Sorry, but what’s the big deal here, exactly?

There’s no copyright issue (there’s no reproduction of content), there’s no conflict of interest (there’s no suggestion you’re endorsing them or they’re endorsing you) and there’s no commercial issue (since no product is being sold). So what is the issue?

I’d understand if this database ranked hacks, or pulled together detailed biographical information I’d provided to a third party without giving consent to MST, but that’s not what’s happening here. MST doesn’t need my consent to say I’ve written something in the Guardian this week, and neither does anyone else. Certainly, suggesting they’re “rogues” seems a bit OTT.

just a thought.

Unknown said...

I guess I just don't like being tracked. I have the same hatred for CCTV and ID cards. Besides, anyone wanting to know what I've had published would be better off googling me to pull up a more complete list of my clippings.

Maybe I *am* making a fuss about not very much, but it makes me uneasy and I dislike the lack of accuracy.