Sensors and Journalism

The Second Section: Case Studies

Case Studies: An Introduction This section will give readers a grounding in the current practice of sensor journalism. Some of the following are cases of journalists using sensors, activists using sensors, journalists using things that seem a bit like sensors, and professionals piloting flying robots with camera payloads. Each case study included here has practices to learn from. We see examples of the techniques and equipment that journalists have discovered to report their stories. We see the processes they developed to protect the communities in which they work. We see journalists navigate the tricky questions of what it takes to produce accurate data, and whether that’s actually what they’re trying to do. (That’s not as straightforward a question as it might appear.) On an operational level, we see some indications of the budgets involved —always of concern for newsroom managers but increasingly of interest to frontline journalists as well. The incorporation of sensors into journalism (and its adjacent fields) has taken a few distinct styles. The first is to design one’s own sensing process to produce data from mature, commercially available equipment. Another is accessing data from existing sensor sources. A third is designing prototype sensing systems to produce data. Dina Cappiello, working at The Houston Chronicle, and Alison Young of USA Today, had specific topics they wanted to investigate. As part of their reporting process they went looking for sensors they could personally operate to produce data to power their stories. At the Sun Sentinel, Sally Kestin and John Maines negotiated for data from tollgate sensors when they found it was the only way they could prove a com monly held belief that Florida police forces were rife with speeding cops. Journalists at the Washington Post also negotiated for sensor-derived public records. They’d found out about a network of audio sensors operated by the Metropolitan Police Department in Washington, D.C., and wrote their story partially as an analysis of what the data described and partially as an explanation of the police’s opaque crime-fighting tool. Two of our case studies cover projects where media makers have also become hardware designers. One, WNYC radio’s archetypal sensor project, The Cicada Tracker, was started by a data journalist named John Keefe before it was adopted by a community of electronics makers. The other, Public Lab’s activist environmental hardware development, might not even be journalism—but these lines are blurring and it is a fascinating movement so we have levered it in. We’ve included a case study about the NPR program Planet Money’s use of a drone, and its unintended camera sacrifice—both byproducts of technology’s improving bang-to-buck ratio and sensor miniaturization. The format of these case studies will, we hope, satisfy readers who are familiar with the projects and those who are reading about them for the first time. The cases start by describing what happened: what the story was, how it was reported, the kit, the facts, and how it was published. Then, you’ll find a section outlining the distinctive and notable elements of each case, before reading some takeaway lessons for the journalism industry. This collection of case studies is by no means exhaustive. Although we have included drones, that is the highest altitude we venture. Out in space orbits a whole fleet of satellites, public and private, carrying a bevy of remote sensors. Newsrooms currently use satellite-derived data in their maps, and at least one newsroom has current investigations that leverage infrared sensor data and time-series of visible light images.1the early phases of the research underpinning this report, we expected to have more examples of

custom-built sensor projects to study. However, through our own activity and through observing the mainstream of the profession, we found fewer than expected examples of journalists building their own sensors. Costs and the difficulty of producing accurate data have sunk journalistic projects of that type. While researching and writing these cases, three key themes emerged. Journalistic sensing is often intertwined with community. The physicality of sensing tends to mean that reporters have to work actually in their communities and must consider how their activity will interact with the people living where they are taking measurements. Second, the journalists in these case studies learned as they went. They found out about technology and researched its processes. Even the reporters who had formal training or long experience in their specialized beats had to study up to get the story right—and not just on the subject of their articles (which journalists almost always do) but on techniques and practices from professions outside their own. And lastly, but crucially, these journalists were not collecting their sensor data in isolation. Not only did they add context to the data, to make their audiences care, they rendered colorful pictures of the affected people.