A Turning Point for Sensor Journalism

The NFL’s recent introduction of smart sensors produces multiple layers of information in real-time – a reminder of sports’ contribution to innovation in journalism.

AP Photo_Steven Senne

Our love of sports in this country can be traced back 100 years to the end of World War I, when a period of stability and prosperity led to an increase in disposable income and time. As interest in sports grew, newspapers took notice and started developing related content for the masses. Advertising revenue followed soon thereafter, and sports journalism became an important driver of innovation in the news business.

Sports transcended print, though. Boxing commentary was an early experiment in radio, while television caused interest in games to increase exponentially. The National Football League capitalized on its made-for-television format both in becoming America’s leading spectator sport and in raising revenues through its “television timeouts” starting in 1958.

Almost 60 years later, the NFL has announced something that once again could continue to further push innovation in journalism. Each player’s shoulder pads will be equipped with a set of radio-frequency identification (RFID) sensors, which emit unique signals that pinpoint field position, speed, distance traveled and acceleration in real time. The data will be available both to broadcasters for commentary as well as to coaches and players via cloud technology.

This innovation not only places sports broadcasting once again on the edge of technology adoption but also signals potential gains for other investigative fields that embrace sensor-driven approaches to further their coverage of political, environmental and health care landscapes.

“We are living in a sensed world,” wrote Fergus Pitt of the Tow Center.

In a not-so-distant future, data could be produced by sensors around the globe – including in traffic cameras, geological beacons and air-quality control systems – and be increasingly made available to journalists so they can explore new ways of reporting.

With the developments of distributing data via sensors, journalists must embrace the tools and techniques necessary to maximize the industry’s full analytical potential.