Feel the Power: Sensor Journalism

After the 2011 earthquake, tsunami and nuclear plant explosion in Japan, journalist Sean Bonner searched online for radiation data.

But he and two friends couldn’t find any.

“It’s not because it’s not being published, it’s because it doesn’t exist,” said Bonner, who went on to create Safecast, a website that collects radioactivity data across the globe.

However, Bonner’s statement applies to more than radiation levels. With the power of sensors, we are allowed to enter a world of unknown, untouched data. And what better to do with just valuable information than to share it with the public?

According to the Columbia Journalism Review, sensors are “mechanical devices that monitor all sorts of biological, physical, and social data,” and when applied to journalism, they “can provide vital insights into our communities and the world around.”

Arduino Uno + Ethernet Shield + RF 433 Mhz receiver: a sensor used to decode values transmitted by Oregon Weather, which then sends decoded information over the Internet. (https://www.flickr.com/photos/gael/6124343569)

There are many examples of journalists using sensors in investigative journalism. A lot of people feel that they can trust information backed by data rather than a news story alone.

Ghost Stories is a major journalism project produced by USA Today. Journalists collected soil samples in the grounds near where lead factories once stood. Though these factories, which “once spewed lead and other toxic metal particles into the air” have since been shut down and destroyed, USA Today’s samplings showed some discomforting results. The data showed that there were still extremely harmful toxins in the ground, even in neighborhoods with children. The use of data collection and sensors provided USA Today with an entire story. This goes back to Bonner’s statement — this information was not previously reported on because the information was not present.

Using sensors in journalism provides data that enriches stories. New data collected by journalists also can be compared to existing data. Lastly, sensors in journalism can be used to observe general trends instead of specific points, like in Ghost Stories.

There are other times where journalists use sensor networks to analyze and report on previously collected data. Journalists from the Sun Sentinel in Florida used a years worth of data collected by tollbooths to report on speeding police cars. Reporters were able to determine how fast police cars had been driving from one tollbooth to the next with a GPS. Their findings showed that nearly 800 police officers were driving on highways between 90 and 130 miles per hour on Florida highways.

A CMO pixel sensor, which is used in imagery systems like cameras. (https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Active_pixel_sensor_prototype.jpg)

The Tow Center of Journalism at Columbia University said, “as the development of these devices outpaces laws, guidelines, and, at times, even understanding, journalists have an obligation to consider the ethics of collection, use, storage, and protection of sensed data.”

The Tow Center is right, there are not many laws laid down quite yet to limit sensor journalism. However, the use of sensors should not overrule the ethical practices used in journalism. One of the points in the SPJ Code of Ethics states that a journalist should “balance the public’s need for information against potential harm or discomfort.” It continues, “pursuit of the news is not a license for arrogance or undue intrusiveness.”

This concept can be applied directly to sensor journalism. For example, in Ghost Stories, USA Today originally published exact street addresses and residences on its interactive map to pinpoint poisonous lead sites. To respect these residents’ privacy, USA Today went and moved the pinpoints to public streets. The changing of the pinpointed locations is an example of using ethical practices in sensor journalism.

Camera sensor installed in Samsung Galaxy S cell phone. As pictured, these high-tech sensors are less than an 1 inch wide. (https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Samsung_Galaxy_S_camera_sensor.jpg)

According to the Tow Center of Journalism, “Sensors are a way of collecting information about the world. Journalists trade in acquiring information, analyzing it, organizing it, and distributing it. That alone suggests a natural fit.”

Using sensors in the journalism field is absolutely worth it. There are copious amounts of data to be discovered and reported on and shared with the public. There is so much more information to uncover.

As mentioned before, there are ethical and legal implications to be considered when using sensors in journalism. Do journalists have a right to collect information and release it? Who owns this data? What information does the public have a right to know? When is it legal and illegal? I think that these lines need to be further defined in order to move forward with this technology.

With the evolving technology, there will be a place for sensor journalism outside of investigative journalism. For example, the National Football League (NFL) will begin to install sensors in players’ shoulder pads to collect a variety of data from speed to distance to field position. The data can be released to sports journalists for commentary. I think data collection from can be applied to nearly any newsworthy topic.

The potential for major advances in sensor technology is out there. It is up to journalists to take full advantage of this technology in the field.

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