Skip to Main


How Satellite Imagery Will Transform the Way Journalists Think About Primary Data

Primary Data of Italian Port

It’s hardly a stretch to say that any given piece of journalism is only as good as its sources. From investigative reporters to editorialists, journalists are the vessels and the heralds of the information they have to work with. As the raw material that helps us interpret the past, gain insight into the present and prepare for the future, primary data sources are the foundation on which journalistic integrity is built. Now, they’re primed for a major boost thanks to our favorite type of space-based technology: high resolution, near real-time satellite imaging.

The Rise of Fake News

In the 2020s, you can’t talk about data sources without addressing the elephant in the room: the murky rise of so-called “fake news.” According to the BBC, “There are hundreds of fake news websites out there, from those which deliberately imitate real life newspapers, to government propaganda sites, and even those which tread the line between satire and plain misinformation.” Alongside these sites, persistent social media connection gives us access to unfathomable amounts of data, but unlike the data sources of the past, huge portions of that data is unedited, unvetted and totally unfettered, with sources ranging from your crazy aunt to Muscovite teens in Russian propaganda factories. This means it’s more important than ever to exercise critical thinking skills for every news source you approach.  

How To Identify Fake News

While fake news comes in forms ranging from 24-hour cable channels to Facebook memes, Cornell University offers a few universal tips for telling facts from falsehoods:

  • Check the source. Take a look at the source site’s “About” or mission statement section to get a feel of their authenticity of bias. If there’s no source identified at all, that’s a big red flag.

  • Look up the author. Are they credible, or are they even a real person?

  • Check for supporting sources. The more info a story gives to support its claims, the better.

  • Don’t forget the date. Old news stories or old data might not apply to current events.

Primary Data vs. Secondary Data

Parsing primary data vs. secondary data not only helps you identify misinformation, knowing the difference is hugely helpful in evaluating the quality of the news you consume, no matter what type of journalism you’re dealing with. Essentially, primary data is information created at the time the event in question occurred. Consider it firsthand, raw material. Secondary data sources analyze, interpret or comment on that data.

Types of Primary Data

Some of examples of primary data include:

  • Original text documents, like official records, government documents, statistics, meeting minutes, new research findings, transcriptions, letters or interviews.

  • Original multimedia, such as firsthand audio and video footage or recorded interviews.

  • Creative works, including film, literature, music, photography or other works of art.

  • Relics or artifacts from the period in question.

Examples of Secondary Data

Secondary data conveys primary data in a new form or with some additional interpretations, opinions or editorializations. Just a few examples include:

  • Overview articles

  • Biographies

  • Reviews

  • Editorial pieces

  • Blogs

  • Memes

Some forms of media can be either/or, depending on the content. For instance, if a scholarly journal article is the first instance of information such as a new scientific theory or statistical data points, it’s a primary source; if a scholarly journal article is an overview of various other studies, it’s a secondary source.

Enter Satellite Imagery

Geospatial data such as near real-time satellite imagery is at the forefront of tools that help journalists acquire and propagate reliable info. High-resolution aerial photos and videos like those you’ll create with SkyFi serve as primary sources across all sorts of journalistic disciplines, and they’re sources that are rich in data too. If you’re a journalist covering wildfires, you won’t find a more grounded primary source than exact visual data of landscapes impacted by said wildfires, with our cameras pointed anywhere on Earth. If you’re covering industry, near real-time satellite imaging offers direct data on the exact locations of shipping vessels. If you’re on the cultural beat, these images can give you an exact head count of large-scale events the world over.

More than that, SkyFi’s affordability and intuitive ease of use makes it an accessible source. With so few barriers to entry, SkyFi puts access to the truth in the hands of the average person, upstart journalist or small business. SkyFi empowers transparent and well-informed journalism with just a few swipes on your phone.

Corroborated Data Is Reliable Data

Among rising skepticism and murky or downright doctored media, satellite imagery is also an invaluable tool for helping journalists corroborate data sources. Consider the 2018 case of a video that purported to show Cameroon soldiers executing blindfolded victims. When the government of Cameroon dismissed the footage as “fake news” that didn’t happen in-country, BBC journalists were able to match landmarks in the video with satellite imagery to confirm the video’s legitimacy, leading to a course-correction from the Cameroon government and justice for the victims. 

Per BBC Africa, “Once we had the general location, we looked at other details in the film — tracks, buildings, trees — and matched them precisely to features visible on satellite imagery.” This practice is known as “geolocating” stories. Geolocation isn’t the only type of satellite-powered corroboration though. Chronolocation can help verify the timing of a news event by using visual information such as shadows or skyscapes to pin down exactly when a relevant event occurred. Both forms of corroboration can bolster the integrity of their sources.

At The Washington Post, Jason Rezaian writes, “headlines about disinformation ... don’t get a lot of sympathy, or clicks. But that’s precisely why it has to be a priority.” It falls to journalists, aspiring and seasoned alike, to prioritize the integrity of their sources. Primary data is the truth, and the world is eagerly searching for more of it — SkyFi is proud to help the search along with a view from the stars. 


YaleGlobal Online — The Rise and Rise of Fake News

Cornell University Library — How to Spot Fake News

University of Missouri — Libraries: Journalism - Resources for Graduate Students: Primary Sources

Bowdoin —- Primary and Secondary Sources

National Geographic — Obtaining Information from Imagery

Geospatial World — Satellite Imagery for Journalism: Why a Picture Is Worth a Thousand Words

Twitter — BBC News Africa (Sep. 24, 2018)

GIS Lounge — Using Open Source Geospatial Data in Journalism

The Washington Post — Being a Journalist in the U.S. Is Becoming More Dangerous