Droning The Story

Over the next year, the Tow Center will be putting a lot of time, effort, resources and thought into sensors and journalism. Journalists at the cutting edge of the news industry have started exploring drones – just one of the new ways to get sensors into the field. And most often, drones come equipped with cameras, just one of the types of sensors the industry can use. In this guest post the 2013 CBC News Vancouver Scholar and Masters of Journalism Graduate from the University of British Columbia, Alexandra Gibb, surveys drones in journalism and picks out some of the ethical and legal traps.

If you’re interested in this field, you’ll probably want to take a look at the Tow Center’s Workshop on Sensor Journalism

Flying machines with no human in the cockpit get called many names: drones, pilotless aircraft, remotely piloted aircraft, remotely piloted vehicles, robot planes, unmanned aerial vehicles, unmanned aerial systems, unmanned aircraft, and even zenanas—Arabic jargon for nagging wives. They’ve dominated headlines for their controversial role in hunting and killing suspected militants in the Middle East and northern Africa. But as worldwide spending on unmanned technology burgeons over the next decade, so will the appropriation and use of drones by civil society.

Journalists striving for an edge in the changing news industry are among the earliest civilian adopters of drone technology. “Once you’ve learned this drone technology … it opens up this whole other world,” said Aaron Brodie, a freelance photojournalist and producer for CNN who is pioneering the field of drone journalism. And to navigate that world, journalists need to learn the skills to run a wide range of new hardware and practices.

Drones come in a variety of shapes and sizes with vastly different capabilities. Civilian drones, in particular, range from do-it-yourself designs built by journalists in their backyards, basements, and garages to $300 smartphone- or tablet-controlled models available at airport gift shops, Costcos, and Radio Shacks across North America to costly professional systems equipped with the latest cameras and sensors. Already, drones are providing reporters with a powerful new means of obtaining aerial imagery and collecting data that will propel storytelling to new heights. But the panoptic nature of drone technology also raises new concerns over safety and ethics.

Thus far, one of the most common uses of news drones is to enhance breaking and daily news coverage. Activist and journalist Tim Pool used a modified Parrot AR.Drone to live-stream coverage of the 2011 Occupy Wall Street protests and police response in New York’s Zuccotti Park. CBS 60 Minutes used a drone to capture never-before-seen video inside the half-submerged Costa Concordia luxury cruise liner, which ran aground off the coast of Tuscany in January 2012. And FOX5-Vegas morning meteorologist Ted Pretty uses a drone he built from a DIY kit to supplement his daily weather forecasts. “It’s perfect for a local meteorologist to get video of a nice day, to get people going about their lives in the park … some shots of the local mountains,” said Pretty in an interview last November.

Drones have been used to collect aerial images and sensory data for investigative purposes. In January 2012, for example, an unidentified radio control hobbyist in Dallas, Texas was flying his camera-equipped drone over Trinity River when he discovered a local slaughterhouse was pumping pig blood into a nearby creek. The hobbyist reported his findings to the authorities and a lengthy investigation ensued. Additionally, drones—particularly those built from scratch—can be equipped with sensors that allow operators to gather vast amounts of information from the air: gas whiffers, electronic eavesdroppers, laser mapping systems, infrared and hyperspectral cameras, and so on. Most can be purchased online for a few dollars to a few hundred dollars, installed on microcontrollers, and programmed to gather and display the desired data.

Journalists have used drones to gain a drone’s-eye view of conflicts and disasters. As the former producer/news manager for multimedia and interactive storytelling at, Brodie traveled to Tuscaloosa, Ala. in April 2011 to photograph the aftermath of a tornado that had recently devastated the region. Inspired by an aerial video he had seen on Rupert Murdoch’s now defunct tablet newspaper The Daily, Brodie borrowed a Parrot AR.Drone from a coworker, rigged a GoPro camera to it, and flew it over demolished homes, through tangled power lines and across debris-strewn roads. The captured video was edited and posted on CNN’s This Just In blog. “[Drones] allow us to get pictures we would never get without putting someone’s life in serious danger. Or that we might just never get, period. And that’s why we’re here—to tell those stories,” said Brodie in an interview last October. He has also used drones to film a New Jersey beach before and after Hurricane Irene, the aftermath of a Texas wildfire, and tornado damage in Forney, Texas.

And finally, journalists are using drones to take groundbreaking aerials. National Geographic photographer Michael Nichols used them to document wildlife in the Serengeti. In a letter to his editor, Nichols describes flying a drone more than 65 feet over migrating wildebeests. “This gives us an image that could be made no other way. Not by helicopter—too noisy and too costly. Not by balloon—too scary and balloons only go where the wind goes. Not by traditional airplane—too fast and too high and also too scary.” The drone, he adds, “is a big tsetse fly and so far the scariest thing for the wildebeests is the commotion we make preparing for the launch.” Others have used drones to capture panoramas of global landmarks, the streets of Prague at night, the granite spires of Pakistan’s Karakoram mountain range, and NASCAR races.

But while many journalists are enamoured with drone technology and what it could mean for their craft, it also raises concerns over public safety. Drones pose a collision risk because they still lack the technology to sense and avoid other aircraft. They are also challenging to fly and prone to crashing. For example, a $200 million Global Hawk surveillance drone owned and operated by the U.S. Navy crashed during a routine training operation near Salisbury, Maryland in June 2011 when its pilot lost control. Law enforcement officers in Montgomery County, Texas crashed a $300,000 ShadowHawk drone into their SWAT vehicle in March 2012 when the drone lost contact with the operator’s controls. And drones built by do-it-yourself enthusiasts often fall out of the sky due to pilot and technical errors or simply a gust of wind. “These things crash,” said Brodie. “These things are not commercial aircraft. Batteries can run out, motors can fail, propellers can break and, most importantly, you’re flying at a low level. I mean, I’ve crashed into trees.”

The panoptic nature of drone technology also challenges traditional journalism ethics. Rumours of paparazzi using drones to stalk celebrities and photograph Hollywood events have caused fear of abuse and privacy invasion. The ability of journalists to use drones to collect primary data may prompt authorities to subpoena that information for law enforcement purposes, jeopardizing journalistic independence. And just as drones have “gamified” war, so too may they gamify news by blurring entertainment and reality. Finally, the deployment of news drones—which are sometimes indistinguishable from tactical military drones—over conflicts and disasters may inflict further psychological harm among already traumatized publics.

To address these concerns, drone and data journalist Matthew Schroyer founded the Professional Society of Drone Journalists and published a “Drone Journalism Code of Ethics.” It builds on existing journalism ethics codes and suggests the following requirements be met—in order—before reporters deploy drones: 1) the information sought must be newsworthy and unobtainable by other means; 2) drones must be in suitable working condition and operated safely; 3) drone operations must follow regulations and cause minimal public disruption; 4) drone operators must respect individual privacy rights; and 5) drone operators must comply with traditional journalism ethics codes.

This is a great start. But with so much at stake, drone journalists must continue devising specific rules guiding behaviour. Fortunately, there are at least two more years until the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration legalizes commercial drone operations, giving the news media time to reflect on its values and develop appropriate ethical principles for drone journalists. Ultimately, however, the pioneers of drone journalism insist that safety and ethical concerns will be resolved and that the benefits of drone journalism will outweigh the risks: “When you turn on the news it’s either crime, fires, police chases, or it’s two politicians yelling at each other,” said Brodie. “I just don’t think that’s going to fly anymore for young audiences. … We’ve got to find a better way to give them something that actually interests them, engages them, or else the problems we have here in America will just keep getting worse because nobody will care. If we can use a drone occasionally to do that, I’m all for it.”

This blog post is a condensed version of Alexandra Gibb’s Drone Journalism Master’s Thesis (Downloadable PDF file)