Public Lab Research note

My Reflection on Sensor Journalism

by jessica_colarossi | February 23, 2015 21:43 23 Feb 21:43 | #11631 | #11631

By, Jessica Colarossi Data Visualization Class, Professor Catherine D’Ignazio 2/22/15

Reflection Paper- Sensor Journalism and our Water Conductivity Project

Like the majority of my classmates taking Data Journalism, I am new to this game. Never in my life would I have guessed that I would have to learn circuitry in a journalism class; nevertheless getting the circuit to function accurately. These four weeks I have been in this class have opened my eyes to a completely new style of reporting and has already showed me the importance of reporting on data has in today’s techno-driven world. Everything in today’s society is technology and numbers. There are advancements and discoveries everyday whether we hear about them or not. That is why journalists are needed more than ever. We can fill the gap between scientists and the public, between mind-blowing lists of data numbers and consumers who need to know. We are the interpreters. That being said, I think there are tons of new and exciting opportunities for sensor driven journalism, and I also think there are plenty of pitfalls using sensors. The biggest pitfall I see: journalists aren’t scientists. I am not familiar with using sensors, gathering numbers, or building them or coding. My assumption is that most other journalists are in the same boat. This leads to a high margin of error, and potentially faulty data. For data journalism to work, it seems that the reporter needs to be capable of being savvy within both science and journalism, and know enough about both to tell an accurate story. This poses many challenges, but could definitely be worth conquering for the sake of good reporting. Where is the line between being credible as a journalist and being an expert in the field of science? A small-scale example of this pitfall was seen in class when we used our sensors to test water conductivity. Building the circuit board to test the water would have been impossible if professional help was not provided. Even so, there were many groups in class that were not able to make it work, at least for a while. We encountered problems using the computer program to record the sound of the sensor, because it was picking up outside noise not from the sensor. Once my group and I got everything to work, our results seemed pretty accurate. However, it leads me to question whether or not this data is accurate enough to use for a journalism story and whether or not reporters could rely on the data they collect if they are new to the subject. Another pitfall I see is the issue of journalism ethics. Since we are creating the sensors, gathering the data, and reporting on our own findings, who is to say the writer is telling the whole truth? Data could be easily manipulated, or be crafted with a foreseen result. I think for a story to be ethical, there needs to be a mediator between the finding of data and writing about the data to ensure accountability of the reporters actions. For example, Patrick Herron from the Mystic River Association used large, high quality sensors to test Massachusetts’ waterways, chloride levels, and many other environmental factors that could be potentially harmful. Their findings are highly monitored and tested by the association’s professional team of scientists. Needless to say, the data they collect is probably accurate. However, if Herron himself were to publish his data in the Boston Globe, for example, would is still be credible? Journalistically speaking, I think there should be a separation between the gatherer and the writer. However, that is not to say there is still no room for opportunity; because there certainly is. Using sensors allows people to find things that never would have been available for anyone before. It also allows for public participation and for data to be collected over a wide range of areas. That being said, sensor journalism isn’t easy by any means. It takes a lot of man power to get an idea off the ground, and usually a lot of money; getting the sensor, travel costs, having the data verified in a lab. Whether or not a publication covers the costs varies, and it is not fair (or probably possible) for a journalist to fund their own story. It’s empowering for a journalist to be their own expert, instead of relying solely on outside sources. I have been referring to sensor journalism as “grass roots story telling.” The report is building, or helping to build, their story from the ground up whether it involves polling, distributing sensors for public participation, or using high-tech sensors for them and the reporting team. From my small experience with sensor journalism, it seems to be an impossible for one individual to take on solo. A team effort and outside collaboration is necessary for a large-scale data story to work. However, no matter what I think that journalists can be limited by their knowledge of the technology and knowledge of the topic, since sensors are mostly used in the sciences. This leaves a lot of room for error to occur. If data is reported wrong, that can potentially damage an entire business, put peoples’ health at risk, or greatly mislead the public. There is a lot at stake for a data journalist. That leads me to the conclusion that sensor journalism should be used as a tool to enhance a story, not provide the story. Expert knowledge, background research, and interviews will always be needed in journalism. Sensors cannot replace the need for traditional storytelling techniques. It is an amazing step in journalism that reporters can now go out and test a subject for themselves and fact check the experts. There is more independence on the journalists’ own accord. If sensors are used as creative tools, journalists can boost their credibility more than ever before, put their own questions to the test, and improve the value of a story. There are still so many questions within sensor journalism; who will make the policies? Is it ethical? What other fields can sensors be used for? Where is the line between journalist and scientist? There is a long way to go, and I believe that more and more innovation will soon come.


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