Understanding journalism without boundaries: The interlocking practices between data journalism and civic Tech

Presentation by Stefan Baack, PhD, research and data analyst for the Mozilla Foundation. 

The presentation is part of the OsloMet Digital Journalism Focus Seminars, organised by the research group Digital Journalism.


Understanding journalism without boundaries: The interlocking practices between data journalism and civic tech
It is largely acknowledged that the news-making-process is shaped by “networked forces…that span multiple professional identities” (Ananny and Crawford 2015, 192–93). However, research rarely considers the reciprocal relationship between journalists and others: primarily, what is being researched are the effects of ‘outsiders’ on journalists, not whether and how journalists affect those outsiders as well. In this presentation, I will present findings from my research about the entanglements between data journalism and civic tech to argue that we need concepts and metaphors that better grasp journalism as a dynamic set of practices that crosses organizational and institutional boundaries.

Civic technologists and data journalists are closely entangled with each other thanks to their shared reliance on data, overlapping skills, complementary ambitions, as well as institutional and financial support from organizations like the Knight Foundation. Using a qualitative, multi-methodological approach, I show that we can understand the entanglements between them in terms of interlocking practices. Their practices exist along a shared continuum that oscillates between facilitating (enabling others to take action themselves) and gatekeeping (being impactful and steer public debates). Depending on how much emphasis data journalists or civic technologists put on either facilitating or gatekeeping, we can identify different groups across organizational and institutional settings. Additional research comparing the relationship between data journalism and civic tech in Africa and Europe further shows how data journalists or civic technologists mutually shape each other (Cheruiyot et al. forthcoming). In contexts where data journalism is less established, civic tech organizations tend to engage more in practices of gatekeeping, while in contexts where civic tech organizations are absent, journalists might engage more in practices of facilitating.

Rather than occupying distinct fields that only occasionally interact with each other around boundary objects or within special trading zones, the results show that civic technologists and data journalists continuously affect each other. Understanding how the practices of journalists are interlocking with other actors in these ways illustrates the need for a more holistic approach to the study of journalism in general, one that not only looks at professional journalists, but more broadly at the larger actor-constellations in which journalists are embedded.


Stefan Baack's research is broadly interested in how the growing quantification of social life intersects with democratic practices and visions. In his dissertation, he studied how data journalists and civic tech activists use and imagine data; and examined how the growing reliance on data across different sectors in society has created new entanglements between journalism and civil society. After his MA at the University of Bremen (Germany), he did his PhD at the Centre for Media and Journalism Studies at the University of Groningen (Netherlands). After his PhD, he worked as an associate researcher at the Alexander von Humboldt Institute for Internet and Society and as a research fellow at the Weizenbaum Institute. Recently, he started to work as a research and data analyst for the Mozilla Foundation.

Related publications

Cheruiyot, David, Baack, Stefan & Ferrer-Conill, R. (forthcoming 2019). Data journalism beyond legacy media: The case of African and European civic technology organizations. Digital Journalism.

Baack, S. (2015). Datafication and empowerment: How the open data movement re-articulates notions of democracy, participation, and journalism. Big Data & Society, 2(2). https://doi.org/10.1177/2053951715594634

Baack, S. (2017). Practically Engaged: The entanglements between data journalism and civic tech. Digital Journalism. https://doi.org/10.1080/21670811.2017.1375382

Baack, S. (2018a). Civic Tech at mySociety: How the Imagined Affordances of Data Shape Data Activism. Krisis, 2018(1), 44–56.

Baack, S. (2018b). Knowing what counts: How journalists and civic technologists use and imagine data. Groningen: University of Groningen. Retrieved from http://hdl.handle.net/11370/4c94668a-c25c-43cb-9b36-5d54e3ff3c2e