Sensors, Drones and Journalism: Building Community Through Active Transparency

The Ethics of Sensor Journalism Part Two of Three

Image by Fay Ratta

(If you missed part one, you can read it here)

In announcing the Poynter Institute’s new book, The New Ethics of Journalism: Principles for the 21st Century, co-editor Tom Rosenstiel wrote, “Technology has so drastically altered how news is gathered, processed and understood, it has taken journalism closer to its essential purpose. […] News always belonged to the public. Now the ethics of journalism must consider the role of the audience, and the impact of community and the potential of technology more fully.”

The justification for our nation’s strong protection of press freedom is rooted in the idea that gathering and disseminating the news contributes to the common good. Therefore, many ethical debates in journalism turn to questions of whether potential harms are outweighed by the public interest.

So, as we consider the legal and ethical questions surrounding sensor journalism, the role of the public should loom large. And yet, since both our communities and our technology are in such a state of flux, this is no simple task. From the start, C.W. Anderson has argued, “The public was journalism’s totemic reference point, its reason for being.” Yet, in the digital age, while “the journalism-public relationship is still paramount,” the public is no longer a narrow, easily defined category — it is everywhere. Indeed, journalism is still produced for the public, but it is also increasingly produced with the public.

Passive Participants and Active Transparency

There are at least two communities to consider in the design of sensor journalism projects: The members of the community where we are collecting data, and any community members who are helping us collect that data. There is still a lot people don’t know about or don’t understand sensors, so we should approach our journalism with as much openness and transparency as possible. Trust takes a long time to build, and a very short time to break.

Image via PublicLab.org

Because of both the perceived and real concerns to privacy inherent in sensor journalism we should not rely on passive transparency, but instead must invest in a more active kind. Passive transparency means sharing the minimum amount of information possible, and requires communities to seek that information out. Instead, an active transparency approach calls on us to engage in proactive outreach and education about our sensor use.

Whenever possible we should make the work of sensor journalism visible to those who might encounter our physical tools. We can do so by labeling sensors with signs to make them visible, by publishing maps of where the sensors are placed online and in print, by attending community meetings to explain our projects, and — if we are working in radio or TV — we can talk about the sensors on the air and point out where they are gathering data. Ideally, this public awareness work can and should begin before the sensors are deployed.

Kord Davis gave a concrete example of the sensitivities of transparency during the 2013 Tow Center sensor journalism summit. Davis pointed to the use of aerial drones to collect geocoded data in Africa that may include indigenous populations whose values — when it comes to the collection and tracking of that data — we don’t know or understand and who have not been part of the design of our study. Davis’ point is that our newsrooms and communities have values, and those values may not always be in alignment. As such, our ethical framework has to account for both our professional norms as well as the values of the communities with whom we are working.

Data from the Crowd, Responsibility for the Newsroom

Some of the most exciting early projects in sensor journalism, such as the WNYC “Cicada Tracker” project, have included crowdsourcing elements that engage communities deeply in the process of journalism and data collection. As more and more newsrooms look for meaningful ways to connect with their communities, sensors offer an exciting, hands-on opportunity for collaboration.

Building the WNYC Cicada Tracker. Image by Nick Normal, used via creative commons.

However, employing the crowd to help collect data also raises new ethical questions about how to prepare and protect the community members with whom we work. While we need to communicate and discuss these issues with community participants, newsrooms also have to consider issues like the legal and safety risks participants might face in collecting data. An Online News Association working group looking at the ethics of user-generated content and social journalism asked a series of questions that are also relevant here: “Is it okay to ask members of the public to compromise their safety in order to gather information or content for the news media? Or even to accept material from them when they choose to take such a risk What are our responsibilities to them?”

For example, if we are working with communities on a project like Public Lab’s water quality testing effort, what if one of the volunteers drowns while trying to place his or her sensor, or is sued for trespassing on private property while sojourning to the river? If we treat community as an end, not simply a means, as Poynter suggests in its new book, we have to understand that our ethical responsibility extends beyond the subjects of our stories and the community of our readers to the collaborators with whom we work during crowd-sourcing efforts. This approach demands that newsrooms think about how they train, support, and engage their communities, all of which can actually help create more accurate journalism and more deeply connected audiences.


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