Why Drones and Journalism?

A DJI Hexacopter developed by the University of Missouri Drone Journalism Programme

A DJI Hexacopter developed by the University of Missouri Drone Journalism Programme

Not a week goes by when there is not yet another video of some amazing landscape or cityscape shot by a drone camera. Filming famous landmarks, natural landscapes, and weddings even, with drones, may be all the rage, but one area where drones, potentially, could have much wider and interesting, applications, is in the area of journalism.

Drone journalism is not just about aerial photography. Sure, drones have been used by the BBC and documentary filmmakers to capture aerial imagery of Donestk in Eastern Ukraine, however, this is only the tip of the iceberg, potentially.

Alongside filmmakers, journalism has been one of the early adopters of microdrones or quadcopters for aerial newsgathering. This is perhaps driven by a number of factors:

  • The affordability and accessibility of the technology
  • Digital journalism and 24-hour news reporting have changed “the nature of journalism giving us instantaneous reporting, greater levels of interactivity, multimedia content, and content customisation” (Pavlik, 2001, cited in Burton, 2005).

As a journalist’s eyes in the sky, drones with cameras attached could constitute new ways of seeing or representing the world, providing the ability to hold position and monitor rather than just take snap-shot imagery (Clarke, 2014), which could provide a different perspective on breaking news events such as natural disasters and protests.

Below is amazing footage of last year’s Hong Kong Street protests. The drone footage gives us a truly bird’s eye view, which highlights the sheer scale of the protests.

One of the real promises of using drones for journalism is being able to offer readers and viewers a unique perspective on news events and put the scale of it into context in a way that words just can’t do.”

Professor Matt Waite, Drone Journalism Lab, University of Nebraska Lincoln’s College of Journalism & Mass Communications

Much like the military use drones to perform “dirty, dull and dangerous tasks,” similarly, journalists could use them to access areas such as war zones or radioactive sites that are hazardous or unsafe. Watch this video of a Chernobyl radioactive site filmed by a drone:

It is, perhaps, not too remote a prospect to imagine a journalist turning up to the site of a local news event or looking to cover a natural disaster such as a flood. Instead of having to wait for a news helicopter or camera team to arrive, the journalist with their quadcopter or microdrone could be up and flying within seconds and capturing visually compelling footage of the destruction wrought by a natural disaster. They could also potentially be used by “citizen journalists” who may arrive first on the scene with their phone cameras (reference). Now they could perhaps use “flying cameras” (Goldberg, 2013, cited in Postema, 2015).

The microdrones or quadcopters that journalists are currently using can only stay in the air for short periods (20 to 30 minutes) (Waite, 2013). They are also meant to be flown within line of sight under most civil aviation regulations (Maidwell, 2015). But perhaps in future, newsrooms could have drones flying around for hours on end, gathering live coverage of breaking news or sporting events and beaming it back to the newsroom.

Drones with cameras could also be used in sports journalism. Atlantic journalist Rachel Feltman claims the future of sports photography is in drones (Feltman, 2014, cited in Postema, 2015). Given the ability of more sophisticated drones to follow someone you can imagine how photographers may use them to follow the progress of certain players or competitors on a cycling or running track Postema, 2015).

Drones and Investigative Journalism

Professor Matt Waite from the Drone Journalism Lab believes drones greatest application may be in investigative journalism where different sensors could potentially capture more than just visual information. For example, a drone could be used to survey changes in the environment from an aerial perspective.  different sensors could also be attached to monitor say radiation in an area or gather other environmental / scientific information (Waite, 2015 cited in Postema, 2015).

In future, could these nano drones (pictured below) that resemble birds or insects, which are being developed by the US military, potentially be used by investigative journalists to uncover information covertly? What are the associated privacy and ethical considerations of using drones that are cleverly disguised as something else?









In the next installment, I will look at why drones in the hands of journalists raises the eyebrows of privacy and civilian airspace regulators, more perhaps than it does for filmmakers and wedding photographers.

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