The Ethics of Sensor Journalism: Community, Privacy, and Control

Part One of Three

Ten news organizations recently announced a new partnership with Virginia Tech to test drones for use in journalism. The same week, CNN also announced a related but separate initiative with the Federal Aviation Administration and Virginia Tech. However, as news organizations test new technologies they also need to be asking new questions about communities, ethics and privacy.

(What follows is an essay I wrote for the Tow Center for Digital Journalism at Columbia University in the spring of 2014 on ethical considerations around the use of sensors, including drones, in news gathering. I’ve edited it and updated it slightly.)

The rise of sensor journalism comes at a unique moment of flux in the debate around journalism ethics and raises its own set of questions and concerns. Three of the leading professional organizations serving reporters — the Society for Professional Journalists, the Poynter Institute, and the Online News Association — have been undertaking major examinations of journalism ethics focused on how new technology and practices are changing the field. At the same time, we face complex and critical questions about society’s changing relationship with data and personal information. Revelations about both commercial tracking and government surveillance have sparked a contentious national debate about our fundamental rights regarding privacy and security. Meanwhile, community participation in the journalism process has blurred the lines between news professionals and the audience. It is into this public uncertainty and ambiguity that sensor journalism emerges.

This social and political context is critical to thinking about how journalists work with, and collect data about, their communities.
Photo by Zach Hoeken, used via creative commons

We should acknowledge that we are trying to define an ethical framework for a multifaceted and emergent practice. Sensor journalism, as currently constructed, already embodies a number of different forms and models, each raising different ethical questions. There are choices to be made both about what data to collect and what to do with that data once you have it. Similarly, the ethical questions differ depending on whether you are working with willing or unwitting participants. We also need to account for the ethics surrounding sensor data collected by journalists, versus data gathered through crowd-sourced efforts for newsrooms.

Just as newsrooms are learning about the power and potential of drones and sensors, so too are our communities. We are in the early stages of sensor technology, what Julie Steele of O’Reilly Media calls “the precursor, the ancestor, to what will change our lives.” At a panel on the ethics of sensor journalism organized by the Tow Center at Columbia University in the summer of 2013, Professor Joanne Gabrynowicz warned that poor sensor journalism at this early stage of the game could irreparably damage trust and create more fear of sensors amongst the public. It could also lead to bad policy that restricts the long-term use of sensors in reporting. Matt Waite likes to remind journalists, “Don’t do anything stupid. Bad actors make bad policy.” (Think for example of the drone that just crashed inside the White House gates.) Indeed, culture change often precedes policy change, so now is the moment to get it right when it comes to the ethics of sensor journalism.

These questions are complicated by ongoing legal uncertainty at the intersection of media and technology, from the Federal Communications Commission’s debates about network neutrality to the Federal Aviation Administration’s review of its policies for small drones.

At the Tow Center event Kord Davis, the author of The Ethics Of Big Data, reminded participants, “It is always possible to act in accordance to your values but it’s never possible to act in accordance with the law that doesn’t exist yet.” The law focuses on what you can and can’t do, but at a moment of legal flux it is more important than ever that we focus on what we should and shouldn’t do. That is the realm of ethics and as a practice that is rooted in the public interest and the common good; the litmus test for these ethical questions should be our communities.

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