The Ethics of Sensor Journalism: Community, Privacy and Control

Last week the Tow Center at Columbia University held its first research conference, Quantifying Journalism: Data, Metrics, and Computation, where it released three major new reports on Data Journalism, User Generated Content and Sensors. All three reports are important additions to the conversation about technology, reporting and ethics, with some useful and at times provocative recommendations.

I contributed an essay to the report on Sensors and Journalism. The project was led by Fergus Pitt, whose research and case studies make up the bulk of the 200+ page book. But joining me in contributing essays were great scholars, lawyers and journalists whose work adds hugely to this emerging field.

My essay focused on the ethical considerations that arise as journalists engage their communities through the use of sensors. The piece looks at questions around the shifting nature of public and private information, and new privacy concerns that journalists have to contend with in the age of big data. I looked at how the use of sensors intersect with historic issues of discrimination, power and surveillance and describe concrete steps newsrooms can take to engage communities openly and honestly around these issues.  

In his introduction to the legal and ethics section of the book, Fergus Pitt quotes from one of my early drafts. I’m reposting that short section here, as it gives a good overview of many of the issues the authors grapple with.

“It is worth remembering that just as newsrooms are learning about the power and potential of sensors, so too are our communities. We are in the early stages of sensor technology, what Julie Steele of O’Reilly Media calls ‘the precursor, the ancestor, to what will change our lives.’ At a panel on the ethics of sensor journalism organized by the Tow Center at Columbia University in the summer of 2013, Professor Joanne Gabrynowicz warned that poor sensor journalism at this early stage of the game could irreparably damage trust and create more fear of sensors amongst the public. It could also lead to bad policy that restricts the long-term use of sensors in reporting. Matt Waite likes to remind journalists, ‘Don’t do anything stupid. Bad actors make bad policy.’ Indeed, culture change often precedes policy change, so now is the moment to get it right when it comes to the ethics of sensor journalism.

“These questions are complicated by ongoing legal uncertainty at the intersection of media and technology, from the Federal Communications Commission’s debates about network neutrality to the Federal Aviation Administration’s review of its policies for small drones. At the Tow Center event Kord Davis, the author of The Ethics Of Big Data, reminded participants, ‘It is always possible to act in accordance to your values but it’s never possible to act in accordance with the law that doesn’t exist yet.’ The law focuses on what you can and can’t do, but at a moment of legal flux it is more important than ever that we focus on what we should and shouldn’t do. That is the realm of ethics and as a practice that is rooted in the public interest and the common good; the litmus test for these ethical questions should be our communities.”

You can read the full report here.

Update: The original version of this article included the wrong name for Fergus Pitt.


  1. Povonte says:

    Definitely something I needed to read!

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