Public Lab Research note

Sensor Journalism: Accomplishments, Pitfalls, and The Future

by patricktorphy | February 24, 2016 19:01 24 Feb 19:01 | #12745 | #12745

Sensor journalism is a burgeoning new field where science, technology, and reporting converge. The results of sound, evidential methodology are combined with compelling storytelling to make important findings relevant to readers. Complex, community-driven, and impactful projects alike have been spearheaded by journalists for years. But those same journalists must be keenly aware of their own fallibility when engaging in sensor journalism. There are a number of pitfalls that can be encountered as a novice with this medium, and as a (student) journalist I accept that my knowledge and expertise are spread thin. Journalists know a little about a lot; conversely, scientists and tech experts know a lot about one field in particular. Thus, collaboration between journalists and scientists is crucial to develop sound methods and effectively communicate conclusions. Moreover, journalists should approach sensor journalism with the expectation that it can be fraught with defects and caveats.

In the Tow Center report titled “Sensors and Journalism,” a case study about the Houston Chronicle is examined. It provides a good example of the kind of ramifications that sensor journalism can have. Reporter Dina Cappiello wanted to investigate anecdotal reports about working-class residents suffering from chemical rainfall, nosebleeds, headaches and other maladies because they lived near a major petrochemical plant. State agencies and the company assured the community that the air quality was safe. To check that claim, Cappiello distributed chemically reactant badges, which would effectively collect air samples that could be analyzed by a lab, to members of the community. Cappiello learned about the badges because workers at the petrochemical plant would wear them.

What is particularly striking about the Houston Chronicle case study is that in developing a plan, the reporter had to anticipate what tactics the petroleum industry might use to delegitimize her findings: “Throughout the Gulf Coast, community activist organizations had already developed DIY data collection techniques, but Cappiello couldn’t trust they would stand up to the government and industry scrutiny she expected once her story was published. To develop the Chronicle’s process, Cappiello consulted Dr. Thomas Stock, an associate professor of public health at the University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston … The story Cappiello hoped to write stood a high chance of attracting the ire of the local industry, so by deploying the same equipment that the oil refineries used to protect their workers, she hoped to be able to deflect at least one line of attack.” By preparing for how the government and the company may poke holes in her story she was able to strengthen her own reporting and methods. Her ultimate findings showed that some toxic chemicals were present in the air at levels that far exceeded the legal limit. A city task force was formed and the company promised to curb emissions of at least one chemical. Air quality remains a contentious issue in Texas today, while other reporters have replicated Cappiello's methods to analyze air quality in other parts of the country.

But there were shortcomings. Cappiello and Stock found that the methodology used was “robust in the context of journalism, but didn’t approach the standard found in a peer-reviewed health sciences journal.” Moreover, testing should have been performed four times over one year, and indoor air quality was not addressed at all. It should also be noted that this project was a pricy endeavor-- $20,000. In 2002, the bottom had yet to fall out of the newspaper industry, so it is hard to imagine another paper with the circulation of the Houston Chronicle would be able to make this kind of investment in 2016. It is a concerning prospect that the innovations in sensor journalism could be futile if the business model is not sustainable. The answer to this problem may lie in collaborating with nonprofit outlets. ProPublica has performed stellar investigative work that is published by legacy agencies, thereby harnessing brandpower while saving some money.

In a talk at the news conference Newsgeist, John Keefe of WNYC made an interesting comment about the proper sequence of steps for sensor journalism: “This is not a great way to do sensor journalism, which is to start with a sensor and go like so look for a story. Really you should start with a story and say, oh, a sensor could maybe do that.” Cappiello followed what Keefe would consider the proper sequence for journalism, but I am curious to know if robust investigative stories have begun with sensors. After all, our class has been finding stories by perusing data, not necessarily the other way around.

When reflecting on our water conductivity workshop, I wonder how cheaper, accessible technology will further empower citizens to engage in and support sensor journalism in the way that social media has transformed how news spreads. Using the simple breadboard to test water conductivity is fun, and deploying them to citizens to test their local streams is an innovation itself, but what comes next? This should only be preliminary step, and I think what is more important is how that basic information might be used for a more sophisticated sensor journalism project.

Sensor journalism is a fascinating field that has profound implications for citizen journalists, technology, and reporting itself. It is an important tool for investigative journalists to consider using for applicable stories. But reporters must be judicious in how they deploy technology or adopt it, and their process, methodology, and ultimate narrative should be closely scrutinized by colleagues and editors. The more robust the process, the more impactful the journalism.


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