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Science. Communication. Community.

Sensor journalism: Turning journalists into scientists one data point at a time

Science, meet journalism. Journalism, meet science. The blossoming courtship between science and data and sensor journalism is blurring the lines, bringing the once-distinct fields together more than ever before.

By Kelly Tyrrell

Cloud Gate; It's all a blur/By Kelly Tyrrell

Cloud Gate; It’s all a blur/By Kelly Tyrrell

I remember the moment clearly. That giddy, geeky, this-is-amazing moment.

I was sitting in the editorial room of Tribune Tower, with its ornate wall carvings and supposed hiding spots, ready to take part in – or at least observe – my very first editorial board meeting. I was fresh out of the laboratory, a green and eager AAAS Mass Media Fellow, hungry for anything they would feed me.

Tribune Tower/By Kelly Tyrrell

Tribune Tower/By Kelly Tyrrell

That was the moment it hit me just how very similar science and journalism really are.

Bruce Dold, the editorial page editor for the Chicago Tribune, got the meeting going. Around the large, dark wood table, the board picked up newspapers and began to discuss and debate the news, history, politics, current events. It was the newsy version of a scientific journal club, where scientists and students academically pick apart scientific papers.These people were excited about news the way scientists are excited about science and their excitement and discussion were incubating ideas.

When I first made the transition from lab bench to news beat, people would ask: “How can you just walk into the newsroom and be a reporter? I wouldn’t be able to go into a lab and be a scientist? How are you able to do that?”

Even now, nearly two years since my first stint at one of the most historied newsrooms in the country, my path to journalism turns heads and raises eyebrows. But it’s fun to explain.

Like science, journalism lays a discerning eye on the tough questions. Like science, there is a quest to answer those questions fully, completely, without bias or inaccuracy. I often feel each story I take on is like having a mini thesis or major experiment. Like science, the point of good journalism is to help people understand and improve the world around them.

Editors are like principal investigators. They can be tough, they can be gentle. They can be micromanagers or the kind that let you figure things out on your own, sometimes the hard way. At the end of the day, it’s their critical eye that judges the quality of your work before it goes out to the big audience of readers in their dining rooms and on their smartphones.

As a journalist, you never quite become “the expert” like a scientist becomes an expert, but some find themselves at the top of their beat. The radio interviews and book deals emerge, the Pulitzer comes into view. The first big journalism “test” I ever had – covering health reform and the Affordable Care Act for a multi-day series culminating in a public forum at the University of Delaware – felt eerily similar to my preliminary exams as a PhD graduate student.

Except tens or hundreds of thousands of people would read my work, not just a committee of five experts. One of our long-time state senators – someone who helped draft the health reform law – was in the audience at the forum, read my stories with scrutiny. [I passed, by the way, both my graduate and journalism exams].

Image via Flickr user MedienGuerilla.

Image via Flickr user MedienGuerilla.

I was happy to read a couple weeks back Jessica McDonald’s piece about the rise of data journalism. At my paper we hired a full-time data guy last year, who helps us pore through census data, traffic accident data, crime statistics, school and financial information – you name it – in order to help us find and tell compelling stories. Yet another link between journalism and science has captured my attention.

Then, last week, Poynter wrote about sensor journalism and my science nerd radar went wild.

Sensor journalism is the first cousin of data journalism. If data journalism relies on taking the data that comes from others and turning the information into stories, sensor journalism means generating that data in order to tell stories. It’s turning journalists into scientists.

The journalists I know who doubted they could be scientists should pay attention. All they need is an idea. The equipment and tools needed to collect and analyze data beyond the traditional laboratory walls are becoming less expensive to buy and easier to use, making it possible for the non-scientist to collect it.

Sensors can be used to collect information on air and water quality, soil composition, temperature, precipitation, day length and much more, as new technologies come online and available to more and more people, and as more people realize its potential.

17-year Cicada/USDA

17-year Cicada/USDA

For instance, Radiolab at WNYC is tracking the 17-year Cicada, the large red-eyed insect that lives predominantly underground until one day, 17 years into its life cycle, the soil temperature reaches 64 degrees and it emerges to reproduce. They’re doing it by building sensors to track soil temperatures for predicting when the cicadas will emerge along the east coast, from Georgia to Connecticut.

They are recruiting school children and citizen scientists to take part by building their own sensors and sharing their data on Radiolab’s website. Undoubtedly, Radiolab will come up with a witty, fun, auditorily-engaging story on cicadas and on the efforts to track them.

Science, meet Journalism. Journalism, meet Science.

Sensor journalism is doing something science has long tried to do: engage more people in science. And it’s creating a new paradigm in journalism by turning the oft-passive news consumer into a news generator. It’s engaging more people in journalism, too.

In a world where the traditional place of journalism is constantly challenged, this presents exciting opportunities for the future. And we all know the state of science in the U.S.

Sensor journalism also presents another tool for journalists on the quest for information, truth and transparency. More data, generated not by government or activist groups or “interested” private companies means potentially more relevant information, more accountability and a truly grassroots platform for tackling issues important to people and their communities.

And, sensor journalism can even be controversial, thanks to the rise of drone journalism. In some places, sensor drones can photograph American citizens anytime, anywhere.

It turns out, science and journalism really aren’t so different after all. Sure, one is dominated by math and concepts and abstract theories, while the other is rooted in words and human interest and the ever-important “watchdog.” But this data-driven world in which we now live is helping to blur those lines. Let the courtship continue.

For more good reads on data journalism check out the following:

Javaun Moradi’s blog post on sensor journalism (he gets bonus points for the mountain biking)

O’Reilly Radar ‘s Sensoring the News

About kelly tyrrell

runner. science writer. prairie lover. mountain dreamer.

2 comments on “Sensor journalism: Turning journalists into scientists one data point at a time

  1. Pingback: The Journalist, December 2013 / January 2014: Sensor Journalism | Rosie Niven

  2. Pingback: Sensors, Uncensored | Chase the Wanderlust: Misadventures, Music, Madness and Musings

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This entry was posted on April 26, 2013 by in Science Journalism.
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