Public Lab Research note


Some Thoughts on Sensor Journalism

by mattmullen | February 25, 2015 03:41 | 57 views | 0 comments | #11637 | 57 views | 0 comments | #11637 25 Feb 03:41

Learning about sensor journalism is reshaping my understanding of how reporters can find, gather, and present news and stories. Like many of my classmates, I previously saw the role of the journalist as, essentially, the middleman: scoping out stories, then consulting external sources for quotes and data, and neatly compiling the facts into a story.

With sensor journalism, however, reporters can be the ones gathering their own data—even highly scientific data— eliminating the need for reliance on outside people and institutions. Stories can be purer, free from lurking biases in data from other institutions. As “The Art and Science of Data-Driven Journalism,” a report from the Tow Center states, “Social scientists and biologists alike know that the sources for data and conditions under which it is collected will shape and bias any subsequent research conclusions made from it.” (For example, turning to, say, The Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank, for data about unemployment would probably yield different results than turning to the Progressive Policy Institute, a liberal one). So the idea of gathering the data myself, with no bias but my own—which as a reporter I work extremely hard to keep out— is extremely exciting for me.

Using sensor journalism requires significantly more manpower, dedication, and, in some cases, funding, than relying out outside sources. Of course, it depends on the story, and the data the reporter hopes to gather. The experiments we conducted in class, using the Coqui sensors to test water conductivity, was relatively inexpensive and simplistic. That being said, it still took Don Blair’s circuitry knowhow to guide us. So, I have trouble envisioning how, in a budget strapped, fast-paced newsroom, reporters could conceivably utilize sensors. Is sensor journalism still too idealistic and abstract? One method is to crowd source, such as WNYC did with their cicada tracking project. As described in the Tow Report’s seminal report on sensor journalism, WYNC called upon citizens all along the East Coast to build and utilize temperature sensors to track cicada migration. The Tow Report called it “an early classic in participatory electronic sensing.” The success of The Cicada Tracking Project is inspiring—not only was the journalist given data-gathering autonomy, so were the citizens!

This highlights another benefit of sensor journalism: engaging audiences. Whether by building the sensors themselves, and participating in crowdsourcing, or reading about how the reporter himself used sensors, everyday citizens can learn about the power and thrills of science. Instead of the omnipresent use of “the experts,” seen so often in stories, readers can engage with the story and data in a whole new way. Sensor journalism can inspire people to find stories themselves, and participate with the world around them in a new way. Simply participating in the two days of class we spent building and using the water Coqui’s reignited my long-dormant passion for building things with my hands, and following the scientific method. I had not gotten a chance to practice these skills since high school.

Of course, for all of these benefits, there are many pitfalls I have identified with sensor journalism. As Lily Bui was the first to emphasize in her presentation, sensor journalism is still coming into focus, and figuring out what it wants to be. In my opinion, its benefits are largely theoretical, while its downsides are more practical. (This is NOT to discount the amazing, and very tangible research and stories produced with sensor journalism.) The first is that, inevitably, the data gathered by reporters will be less reliable, and perhaps more inaccurate. This comes down to the fact the everyday reporter, such as (and most especially) myself, lacks previous training in the sciences. I am untrained to notice inconsistencies other scientists would pick up on. Sensor journalism, at its core, relies on relatively intuitive and uncomplicated sensors. This can mean the sensors will not be as accurate as those made and used in a lab. Most newsrooms are not equipped with the resources to take the same precautions a normal lab would. While it was thrilling to see the data we had collected using our homemade Coqui sensors, I simply do not trust it as much as data collected in a lab. (I will be very excited to see how our data compares to the lab results. This could very well change my mind.) I’m most interested in the ways reporters can use sensors for less “scientific” means. For example, the Tow Report described how the Washington Post used an audio sensor program called ShotSpotter, which detected gunshots via microphones fixed on rooftops. The Post turned the data into a compelling multimedia piece. In the best case, reporting incorrect data can be embarrassing. In the worst of cases, incorrect data can literally be life threatening. Imagine using a rudimentary--so perhaps inaccurate--sensor to test hidden allergens in medicine, and reporting on the data found.

I don’t mean to sound fatalistic, but I cant help but consider my older brother, who is a cancer researcher at MIT. By his account, even the simplest of his experiments require rounds of testing, re-calibrating, and re-testing in his state of the art lab. Then his data is scrutinized by his fellow researchers, usually endures more rounds of experiments, and only then can he move forward. The data he produces can take months to leave the lab, and many more months to reach the general public. So this idea of sensor journalism, and more broadly, citizen science—as exciting as it is—requires a shift of understanding. It’s something, I think, I’m ready to do.


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