At the start of December, the world of drone journalism looks very different from just 30 days ago. Correspondents in Bangkok and the Philippines used drone video footage in their news reports. In Britain, the journalists and their fellow travellers witnessed drones flying around the Frontline club – a bastion of the mainstream press. The USA airspace regulator laid out their plan for getting private industries’ drones into the sky and then in the Sunday night 60 Minutes television program – that most traditional agenda-setting timeslot – Jeff Bezos caused a hullaballoo by unveiling his plan to add delivery by drone for Amazon’s customers. Perhaps you heard about it?
Coming in a rush as all these events did, they need a little sorting out. Each of them informs journalism, but they have their subtleties and their ramifications.
Start with the journalists who are doing the work: One of Karl Penhaul’s reports from the Philippines used a small multirotor drone to cover the after effects of Cyclone Haiyan’s devastation around Tacloban. The pilot took single shot that started with Panhaul’s piece to camera, then swept up to show audiences an expanse of broken wood and rubble; the remains of totally annihilated houses. The clip exemplified an obvious use-case for drones in journalism. It illustrated the scale of a natural disaster, adding another eye-catching angle to help a fast-moving reporter tell a powerful story. A helicopter could have got the aerial shot, but the spectacular transition would have been difficult and dangerous, the cost would have been much higher and the operational logistics would have had a different scale.
The 1’14” clip had all the hallmarks of an innovative trial of shooting lightweight aerial photography. While Penhaul’s script pulled in references to the Filipinos who bore the brunt of the storm, the drone footage wasn’t integrated with interviews of the people who’d lived through Hiayan and who were still looking for missing friends and relatives. In other stories, Panhaul reported more widely and CNN put the clip in a playlist of their broader coverage, which included moving and powerful human context. But the visual aspects of that particular story (and visuals are the most powerful element in video journalism) were focussed purely on physical fallout. Journalists looking to build on Penhaul’s example of drone reporting shouldn’t abandon their existing practice of talking to people and helping them tell their stories.
In Bangkok, local journalists for The Nation sent a small drone up above the crowds of people around The Democracy Monument protesting against the Thai government. The still images from the flights, which ended up on the newspaper’s website, seemed more effective than the drone-shot footage that ended up on YouTube. For me, the footage on YouTube was disorientating and hard to parse. It missed the opportunity to give viewers an understanding of the police’s crowd-control tactics (which have been controversial), the size of the crowd, or even place the protests in a geographical context. In the newspaper, the photos were presented alongside written analysis, grabbing attention, then supplementing the text with an illustration of the physical size of the story.
On twitter, the footage attracted notice, but alongside the interest, some introduced a note of caution.
Those concerns echo the underlying values that the FAA is bringing to bear in the USA, as they figure out how to allow privately run drones safely access US airspace. They’ve just released their roadmap and Matt Waite, of the Drone Journalism Lab at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, has an excellent rundown on the most important parts for journalists. Journalists can expect to need training and have a responsible, documented approach to safety. One element of the roadmap may have particular concerns for journalists. The FAA appears to classify all drones weighing less that 55lbs in a single group. From the Tow Center’s observations, and our conversations and collaborations with journalism organizations, we’re pretty confident that many journalists will be keen to work with drones that weigh around 5lb. Small drones like that do have their safety concerns, but they’re of an entirely different scale from a 55lb aircraft. The FAA’s roadmap indicates the regulator’s process, but there is still plenty of contestable scope in that process, so journalists who feel that drones are going to be useful tools may want to read the roadmap and engage the FAA as they proceed.
Plenty of people saw a publicity stunt in Jeff Bezos’ announcement that Amazon was in the early stages of planning delivery by drone. After all, it came on the eve of the biggest online shopping day of the year and it certainly got people talking. However, the implications for journalism go beyond the inevitable lamentations that publications are blindly cooperating with Bezos’ marketing plan. The private drone industry (nascent as might be) has been highly anxious about the word ‘drone’ and its association with weapons. While the commentary and chatter after Bezos’ announcement had more than its fair share of ‘the flying robots of death’ jokes, drones delivering packages are an easy concept for the public to imagine, thereby providing an alternative mental model for what the word ‘drone’ might mean.
Whether or not Amazon does help to re-position the ‘drone’ brand, the company certainly gave civic applications of drones a hefty push towards the mainstream. Beyond the original 60 Minutes broadcast, editors at plenty of big outlets commissioned articles, twitter seemed to explode with commentary (and a de-rigueur parody account; @amazondrone). Predictably, reactions ranged from simple ‘oh, wow’ to head-scratching scepticism about the practicalities of regulations, safety, efficiency and cost. The ‘ain’t gonna happen’ brigade cited everything from delivery charges projected at $200 at item to neighbours shooting down the drone before it reaches its drop-off point. A reaction that resonated with me came on the finance podcast Motley Fool; the team reminded themselves of how outrageous the Wright Brothers’ vision seemed when they launched their plane at Kitty Hawk in 1903, and went on to note that even if drones don’t become ubiquitous; shadowing the sun, they seem set to be commonplace.
Reports that UPS join Amazon in investigating drone delivery make that more and more probable.
The case for journalists preparing themselves gets stronger.