Public Lab Research note

Reflections on Sensor Journalism

by lloydmallison | February 24, 2016 15:55 24 Feb 15:55 | #12739 | #12739

It’s pretty plain to see that as we evolve to a more data-driven world, journalists must not only become early adopters of telling stories from and through the medium in order to remain relevant, but embrace data as a possible way to drag the journalism industry back into a respectable light.

Sensor journalism and the new frontier of data driven stories presents an opportunity for journalists to acquire a new skill, offering them a skill set above the general public, once again making them a valued service to society. With the explosion of the internet and blogging platforms, the value of writers has shrunk as the general public (falsely) believes that the work of a journalist isn’t as valuable as it used to be, as news is everywhere. When a journalist has the ability to take a dataset and spin it into a story, it will give the news industry a tool the public doesn’t have, and can begin to regain its position as the necessary filter between both companies and government, holding them accountable and relaying important information the public needs — not just listicles from Buzzfeed that any schmuck can (and does) put together.

However how much of this skill journalists need to learn is questionable. Many data collection tasks require a high level of software or hardware that is above the skill set of most journalists — by their nature storytellers rather than scientists or software designers. It’s unrealistic to expect journalists to become all three (however invaluable that would make them to a company), but can this step to data-driven stories be made without an increase in the standard journalist’s skill set?

Probably not. I believe it’s the responsibility of journalists to increase their general knowledge and overall slots in their tool belt to make themselves as well-rounded and useful as possible. Hence why I’m taking a class in data journalism. A conundrum is where they are supposed to learn these new skills though. Presently enrolled in the journalism department at one of the top journalism schools in the country, it’s tough to think when we’d get the opportunity to dedicate a significant portion of time to learning the ways and methods of sensors, however valuable it may be. Many journalism students complain we don’t get enough training in writing, and our classes aren’t the primary learning vessel for our skills. We get them instead from our extra-curriculars. I believe more demanding classes that teach more efficiently could be the answer. The amount of journalism classes I’ve found have repeated what we’ve already learned, or wasted students’ time altogether is embarrassing for a school which claimed a number one prize just this year. If those class times were jam-packed with learning, and assigned meaningful work frequently, I believe we could scrap a few of the mandatory repetitive classes in favour of courses which have an eye toward the future, and teach young journalism students the skills they need to survive and report in an increasingly data-driven news world.

Classes teaching journalism students software used to create sensors, and practice building them would be a huge skill to leave college with, rather than another class that teaches us how to make radio packages (seriously, how many students at emerson want to learn radio packages? And how many classes do we need to dedicate to it?) Learning about sensors seems scary to most emerson students, with a phobia for mathematics, but learning to use a video camera isn’t easy either, but we all do that.

Furthermore, I believe we don’t need to replace or become hybrids with scientists. We just need to know enough to be able to report unbiasedly on stories that often come from sources with agendas and interests — something journalists must cut through to get to the real story. Data is collected and disseminated by people looking to tell their own story more often than not, and it’s up to the journalist to learn how sensors work and that data is collected in order to cut through the PR stuff we’re fed.

Further, stories like the Texan air pollution story (in the reading) can’t happen without a basic knowledge of sensors, and the confidence with them to question data we’re fed. How can stories like that happen without journalists having a knowledge of hardware and software necessary to tell them? Important reporting comes from hard data, and increasingly it’s more reliable than human-based stories. Humans make mistakes and lie. Data doesn’t (without human meddling, at least.)

My worry with journalists becoming too dependent on others — scientists and the like — to interpret data and show them how to use sensors comes from a worry about bias. Scientists are paid by certain interests, and the very job of a good journalist is to remain separate from that, uncorrupted. Ethically, journalists must be very skeptical of data they’re viewing, and view it with a stern eye towards bias in order to remain ethically sound.

It is also my opinion that the world of story-tellers must look to accurately portray the world as it is today, and as it is going forwards. What I mean by that is we must not focus on data from patently false sources in 2016, such as climate change deniers and the like. I’m not saying everyone needs to jump on the Bernie bandwagon and become bleeding heart liberals, but denying clear, overwhelming data in favour of supporting a narrative that looks to undermine serious issues — more often than not to protect special interests — such as with climate change, police shootings, gun violence, etc tarnishes the entire profession. The journalist’s job is to use information — in this case, data collected — to present unbiased information to the public in order to demand change for a better, healthier, fairer world. Not drag the world back to a time people who support Trump would like to live in.

But the ethics of data collection are themselves hazy before they get to data journalists. Take the Jawbone data collection around the time of earthquakes, for example. In some massive user agreement was likely a clause buried that allowed Jawbone to use their customers’ data collected by the wristband, but did it specify what for? Do we as citizens have to give up all our right to privacy and our right to not have our information collected in order to function in the world? I say this as someone who’s resigned themselves to everything I post, share, type, or frankly think being collected, stored, and logged. There’s something still unsettling about sensors we adorn ourselves in that are supposed to work for us relaying everything we do back to the companies so they “can enhance our user experience.” With the rise of wearable tech, this problem will only grow. We know in reality that apps are cheap because they profit from the data they collect and can sell about us, not app store sales.

But is it an all or nothing thing? Most people, if given the option will (understandably) not want to share their lives with a big brother overlord or the NSA, no matter how innocently they claim they want to protect us and help us. But if nobody gives their data, then genuine innovation into our lives by way of technology and comfort slows significantly.

Is it selfish to want to wear a watch to bed so I can see how well I’m sleeping on an app in the morning, but deny that, frankly, harmless data from going to a company that might design a bed that allows everyone to sleep better? Is it paranoia that it might be misused, when in all likelihood, none of us live in a Jason Bourne movie? Or is it justifiable, based on reports from Snowden and Wikileaks? I don’t know if I can give an answer to this based on any solid reasoning more than it feels weird to think about someone collecting what, before, was considered personal information. Do we need to give up our personal data for our own good? Or will it be too easily misused to further oppress or take advantage of marginalised communities, in situations like predictive policing a la Minority Report?

Personally, I’d be happy to have a house logged into the internet of things, and wear clothes that while stylish, can provide real time feedback to me about my life, so I can make more informed choices. And I’d be happy to have that data shared with companies and agencies that can use it to make choices about general public health and lifestyles, and better the world we live in. If the tradeoff is crazy-targeted ads, I have an ad-blocker installed. But being a person with humility, I understand I can’t speak for everyone. So is there a right answer to the ethical question of data collection and sensor journalism? But as we continue to move towards a more “connected” and technical world, the question is only going to become more prevalent as more people see their data collected, used, and abused.


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