Public Lab Research note

Sensor Journalism Reflection

by codybowman | March 17, 2015 03:13 17 Mar 03:13 | #11683 | #11683

As a high school senior applying to colleges, the thought of not having to take another math or science course again thrilled me! Emerson College allowed me to pursue my talents and avoid subjects that I didn’t get along with. I’ll admit that I was not overjoyed about doing the water test experiment at first; plagued with flashbacks of high school Earth Science. But I’ll admit, making the coqui sensors was amusing and interesting—and I learned a lot in the sensor-creating process.

Testing the water samples was thought provoking and forced us to really consider how we, as humans, are impacting the world—even with road salt! The research was the easiest part of the coqui water tests. As journalists, we’re accustomed to doing research and digging in unique places online to find facts for a story. I was fascinated that Mayor Marty Walsh even developed a website dedicated to snow and ice facts in Boston, as an attempt to gain transparency. (

The website totals 114,057 tons of road salt have been used in the Boston streets and roadways—an amazing figure that really puts things into perspective. This showed me how effective Sensor Journalism can be. Not only is that figure alone story-worthy, but any additional facts or data I could create would benefit the story.

Testing the samples proved to be tough and somewhat inconclusive. While there was an absolutely detectable difference between the dirty and clean snow, the amount of difference was hard to figure. Also, each coqui seemed to react differently when tested in the same snow samples. While it is obvious that dirty snow triggers a different sound than clean, the coqui was difficult to measure and its consistency is questionable.

As a journalist, I don’t know how to create a sensor device that can perform this experience. I am also not equipped to perform experiments similar to this without significant help. But that ok—because I’m a journalist, not a scientist, which is the hardest part about Senor Journalism. The blending of the two professions can be confusing unless you’re a scientist who is a good writer. It’s harder to be a journalist-turned-scientist than vise-versa, and having the ability to fact check the data can be difficult.

Also, typically there is a split in the newsroom between the story itself and the journalist. Typically the writer gathers information about a subject and reiterates the information, but Sensor Journalism blurs these lines. When a journalist reports on information they have tested themselves, it’s hard to be sure that it’s completely factual and not dramatized or altered for the sake of a good story.

The fact checking can prove to almost be impossible on a story that analyzes data created by the writer. Even with a step-by-step dialogue about how they collected the data, there is still an underlying sense of bias and even persuasion.

Scientists create data under the moral code of science. Their job is to create and present data, while a journalist’s main goal is to tell a story. Every story has a side and every story needs drama—which is why it’s difficult to act as both positions.

While the homemade coqui may be difficult to use to collect data for a story, journalists do have an infinite amount of data and information at their fingertips that are reliable and trusted. Our iPhones collect a huge amount of data that is extremely helpful for journalists to use. This device is new to the community—its capabilities weren’t nearly as precise or dependable as they are today. From weather to mapping, the iPhone has proven to be extremely useful.

For journalists to be able to use sensors for journalism, it would take for more technology to be made for public use. If we all had access to top-of-the-line coqui sensors (that didn’t cost thousands of dollars), then we could use them to create data for our stories. Unfortunately, technologies like this are difficult to get on a journalist’s pay salary.

I do think that journalists should be as creative and opportunistic as possible. Utilizing data collectors that we have access to (and use) in innovative ways can really add to a story. For example, when the Olympics were held in China and journalists were able to monitor the air quality using their cell phones proved to be an extremely inventive way to use their iPhone and the data collected was conclusive, it could be proved, it could be monitored, and it added to the story.

Sensor Journalism has incredible potential, and it’s something that has been utilized for decades. The art of meteorology uses data collected by sensors to predict weather, truly blending journalism and science. Although the weather is something very conclusive and obvious: is it raining or is it not raining? Journalistic ethics don’t effect weathermen, they don’t have “agendas” or “bias,” they have to tell it straight forward. As a result, we trust the data (usually) they present to us and plan accordingly without suspecting them as giving us false or dramatized information.

It will take time to see how sensor journalism can be used in the news business, but it is a promising field that is certain to change how we write and see the news. Journalists have to be creative and thorough when collecting and presenting data, and readers must consider bias or embellishment.


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