Public Lab Research note

A Critical Look At Sensor Journalism: Could it Change the Landscape of Reporting?

by mehaky | February 22, 2015 00:44 22 Feb 00:44 | #11612 | #11612

When we talk about the transformations happening within the field of journalism, the discussion is often focused on the new mediums through which news is found, consolidated, spread, and consumed; for example, print stories are becoming digitized onto websites, websites are becoming optimized and turned into apps for mobile devices and tablets, and people are finding and sharing more and more news on social media websites like Facebook and Twitter. Though the changes in how and where we consume media are salient and worthy of discussion, few people seem to be talking about the the changes happening with the storytelling techniques themselves. Enter sensor journalism, one of the newest members of the journalism scene that allows reporters to turn numbers into stories and help make sense of information otherwise inaccessible to the general public.

Working with Coqui sensors and listening to presentations by MIT graduate student Lily Bui and Patric Herron, the Director of Water Quality Monitoring at the Mystic River Watershed Association was an incredible first-hand portal into the world of data and data-driven stories. Though the workshop and presentations made a convincing argument for why sensor journalism is important and useful, it also became quickly apparent that it is still in its embryonic stages.


There are a lot of issues and questions surrounding sensor journalism that still need to be addressed, and the main ones that come to mind for me have to do with the conflation of two very separate fields and how they can be brought together in an effective way; for example: how reliable can stories on data be when told mostly by people (journalists) who don’t necessarily have training in sifting through and interpreting data? How effective can sensors be when assembled by people who don’t necessarily understand their mechanism or nuances? How can an informative yet accessible story be told without appropriate lexicon (scientific, technological, or otherwise)? Bui mentioned in her presentation that some pitfalls of sensor journalism include both interpretability of the data and education surrounding the data. Trained journalists are often not trained in fields of science and technology, and though I am by no means claiming a journalist can’t learn about the two fields and, more importantly, learn about the intricacies of data and finding stories in data, the lack of knowledge and information may present itself as a major barrier for journalists who would have to do an extensive amount of research and new learning to collect data and report every story.

Other issues have to do with the technology itself. Since these sensors are mostly DIY (and should remain as such since, in my opinion, the entire point of sensor journalism should be that everyone can access the materials and everyone should be able to vet the information), there is higher likelihood for something to be done incorrectly during the assembly process, the control variables not being consistent or maintained properly, external factors interfering with the device (i.e. cross-contamination, heat, etc.), or even misuse by the journalist. During the workshop with the coqui sensors, for example, even after an extensive walk-through that included a crash course in electricity, a step-by-step guide on wiring the breadboard for the speaker on the coqui to make a sound, and a brief explanation of how to interpret the frequency caused by our various water samples, every group in the class encountered at least one problem. These issues were caused by things like human error like incorrect wiring, software failings, and collected water samples not conducive to this experiment. In order to move forward, we needed troubleshooting help from someone else; without this, many of us would have felt like we reached an impasse or have simply been unable to resolve the issue on our own. Since sensor technology isn’t necessarily yet standardized, certified, or calibrated, each sensor acted a little differently which could definitely present as a problem for telling a story. If every group in the class were to take its data and turn it into a story about water quality in the greater Boston area, the conclusions and big-picture findings might be the same, but the details, specifics, and numbers might not.

The third big issue with sensor journalism has to do with ethics, as expected to be an issue with anything that involves humans and data collection. The Tow Center from the Columbia Journalism School’s report on sensor journalism discusses some of these ethical issues. The main ethical ethical takeaway from the report is: “Sensors may seduce journalists into thinking their output is objective and free from the errors inherent in human testimony. That is a risky belief.” This is the biggest issue we discussed in class—numbers can lie and people can twist stories, which becomes especially dangerous when numbers are involved, since anyone will believe a statistic thrown at them.

Another ethical issue that interest me particularly has to do with drones and data collection via drone journalism, which is becoming more popular and important on the journalism scene. The Tow Report outlines several responses to the National Press Photographers Association on the topic of drone journalism. Some responses, like this one, are positive and put a lot of faith in journalists respecting privacy and sticking to codes of conduct (when they exist):

“The media has legally, ethically, and respectfully used wireless microphones, tiny cameras, and super-telephoto cameras without invasions of privacy for decades. It is not in the interest of legitimate news organizations to alienate our audience by invading, or being perceived to invade, privacy. We will conduct ourselves with the same level of professional integrity with drones

Others were not so certain:

“You have no reasonable expectation of privacy when out in the open or in a public place...I don’t trust all of us to use a drone properly. With a helicopter, people can see and hear it. But with a drone, they can be virtually invisible.”

A third group was concerned about safety of drones to collect data:

There is a safety aspect. Police helicopters fly between 400–600 feet, media fly between 700–900 feet. I don’t trust that person flying a drone not to interfere with a manned aircraft trying to impress the boss. Today, we waited to the last minute to cancel a live shot due to lightning. We could see the storm on radar, but the reporter didn’t want to disappoint the producer and kill the live shot. I finally did. Safety first. But that reporter would’ve done the live shot, lightning be damned. And given a drone, who knows?

It is inevitable that drone use in newsrooms will increase significantly in the coming years, but with no real regulations on these small, light-weight, nearly invisible-data collectors, should we be concerned about the ethics of their use?


All three of these issues can mainly, for now, be attributed to the fact that sensor journalism is in its rudimentary stages. But after this module in class, I’ve come to see it as something with a lot of potential to positively transform the landscape of reporting and storytelling. Sensors give journalists the ability to vet information given to them by authorities and make sure the public is aware of not only the validity of the data, but where it comes from and what it means. The DIY nature of these sensors give journalists the ability to understand the data and data collection process better, which comes with the ability to understand what could potentially go wrong when other people collect it. The accessibility of this technology puts the power of data in the hands of everyone. Journalists, who happen to be part of that everyone, just happen to be interested in creating important narratives with that data that now they have access to because they were able to build and use a sensor themselves.

What struck me the most about sensor journalism, and the part of it I hope to integrate into my own journalism and learn more about in the future is the idea about using sensor journalism to improve city infrastructure. Bui talked about “smart cities,” places where digital technology such as sensors are able to enhance the well-being of the residents via functionality of services offered. I imagined a city with GPS on all public transportation to help make commutes easier and more efficient, tools to detect which streets and sidewalks need attention for repair, renewable energy sources like solar cells to optimize and conserve energy, sensors that will help collect data about air quality and water quality to ensure good health of residents, and even sensors that can detect human behavior and movement to create a place conducive to the lifestyle of those who live there. This is where I think sensor journalism has the most promise. Keeping people in the know about where, when, why, and how data is being collected on them, publishing stories about why it’s effective and ineffective, telling stories about trends, and serving as a sort of middleman between developers of this technology and your every-day resident who might not have the information, know how to access it, or know how to interpret it. As the specs continue to get ironed out, I think sensor journalism will be able to do great things, especially in the field of urban planning and city infrastructure, to better the quality of life for people and disseminate information everyone has the right to know.

__header image: Benjamin Chung/Flikr


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