Journalists Are Looking to Drones as the Future of Reporting

In a few years it could be every reporter's must-have tool. But is this OK?

Mar 28 2013, 7:00pm
A six-motor drone used in the Missouri Drone Journalism Program (MDJP). Image by Robert Partyka / MDJP

A lot of journalists have been critical of our reliance on and acceptance of drones—rightly so, and none more so than the writers and editors right here on Motherboard. Meanwhile drones, in one form or another, have become ever more widespread in our lives. They’re cleaning our floors, they’re driving taxis, they’re spying on us. 

Thanks to new Federal Aviation Administration regulations, dozens of private companies are working overtime to develop drones for surveillance purposes. Some experts believe as many as 30,000 of them will take wing over US skies in the next ten years. Though nothing about the way we use drones is inevitable, drones themselves have become an incontrovertible fact.

What’s a drone-wary journalist to do? Recent news indicates some journalists, at home and abroad, are already adopting an old saying: If you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em.

The latest news comes from China. CRIEnglish, an English-language news portal for China Radio International, reported today that the Hubei Daily Media Group, a provincial media outlet in Central China, posted a job listing looking for a drone operator. The purpose? Taking aerial photos using two drones the news outlet intends to buy, according to Chen Yong, head of the group’s Aerial Photography Center.

“The project not only helps cameraman to take photos or videos from a unique perspective in high-definition,” Chen told China’s People's Daily newspaper, “but also removes high-costs and eliminates the safety concerns involved with rented civil helicopters during previous aerial reports.”

The Chinese, we like to believe, have a penchant for spying. Well, they do. But so do most journalists. Whether you’re a paparazzi celebrity vulture or an august investigative reporter, it’s part of the job. Americans ostensibly care about being spied upon, but only a little. Google surrenders data about thousands of Gmail users to the US Government ever year, yet we don’t care enough to quit Gmail. Municipal surveillance systems are spreading and becoming more invasive nationwide, none so impressive as the new Domain Awareness System recently introduced in New York City.

Perhaps it was inevitable, then, that journalists in the United States would take an interest in drone technology, too. According to an ABC News report last week, professors at the University of Missouri have started a “Drone Journalism Program” to teach their students how to use drones as reporting tools. Students “learn to fly them, and also do what reporters do: brainstorm ideas, go out and do reporting, do drone based photography and video,” professor William Allen told reporter Colleen Curry. “We're trying to see if this is going to be useful for journalism.”

The Chinese help-wanted ad follows on the heels of an already successfully journalistic drone exercise conducted by a different Chinese news outlet last fall, according to the CRI report. Americans are getting in line. Curry continues:

The leaders of the drone journalism movement envision a time when news organizations replace costly helicopters and pilots with cheap drones to get closer to breaking news or weather stories, along with using them to uncover investigative pieces they may normally not see.

“The other aspect is investigative, the idea is you put a drone up in the air and look around. Maybe you'll find things, who knows what yet,” Allen said. “We need to explore that and see. Many journalists can't afford to rent a helicopter and fly around.” 

Video courtesy of the Missouri Drone Journalism Program, via  Jaime Cooke on Vimeo

For some, drone journalism is bound to feel a little creepy. The idea of government drones and satellites—or Google Earth—buzzing overhead taking potentially embarrassing or incriminating pictures of us is already unsettling. The last thing some people want is news agencies—some of which have already established very questionable ethics practices—doing the same.

Ryan Calo, a law professor at the University of Washington who testified at a recent Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on drones, rightly noted that drone use in journalism raised some unique concerns. “I worry about drone paparazzi,” he told ABC. “For celebrities, obviously it's a burden they must bear for being in the public eye, but the possibility of constant surveillance and possible danger to a celebrity I think are real concerns.”

Still, the paparazzi are hardly paragons of ethical journalism no matter how they’re getting their shots. Good reporting doesn’t violate people’s right and good journalists know how to walk that line, regardless of what tools they’re using. Is there anything fundamentally unethical about journalists using drones instead of a helicopter?

Journalist and associate professor at the University of Southern California Annenberg, Marc Cooper, says no. He also doesn’t “see drones coming into use for journalism anytime soon,” he told me in an email, “though we have decades of similar precedent with camera equipped blimps and choppers.

“I would say that while the word ‘drone’ has a scarier sound to it, the potential ethical issues seem little different to me than the use of chopper cams, hat cams, etc.,” he continued. “Depends how they are used.”