What is Responsible Drone Journalism?

by Astrid Gynnild and Terence Jarosz

During the ENEX Coordinators and Editorial meeting (hosted by TV2 Norway) in Bergen on the 22 February 2018, ENEX News Editor Terence Jarosz, chaired a special session on drone journalism that featured SIC Portugal Senior Producer, Daniel Sabino and Professor Astrid Gynnild from University of Bergen.
Here are some of the issues that were highlighted in the session, summed up by Terence Jarosz and Astrid Gynnild, who is also co-editor of the book “Responsible Drone Journalism”.
Terence Jarosz, Astrid Gynnild and Daniel Sabino at ENEX Coordinators meeting in Bergen (Fev. 2018)

Drone and Aerial view — General considerations

A drone is a remotely controlled flying device for capturing aerial videos and still photos. Drones are also called unmanned aerial vehicles, UAVs, flying robots and camera drones. Within less than a decade, drone journalism, or dronalism, has developed from testing out cheap, unstable visual tools developed by activists to handling advanced sensor platforms with capability of large scale surveillance.

Drone journalism has revolutionized the options for capturing stunning imagery from above. The tight coverage of, for instance, deadly forest fires in Portugal and hurricanes in Florida are but two examples that demonstrate the incredible news value of doing drone journalism. In short, drones have disrupted journalism news coverage from above.

Camera drones have within a very short time period demonstrated their competitive advantages: They are cheap to get, easily accessible and simple to use. No helicopters or cranes needed, just a piloting license and lightweight equipment for remote control, such as a cell phone. Camera drones stimulate journalism innovation and creativity. At the same time, the global expansion of drone video clips challenges journalism accountability and transparency in new ways.

The drone approach to filming is, however, not as new as we might think. Aerial photography goes more than a 150 years back, to the time of kites and hot air balloons. The first aerial picture ever taken showed a view of Paris and was made by French photographer Felix Nadar in 1858.

Boston as the Eagle and the Wild Goose See It — 1860

The ‘Boston as the Eagle and the Wild Goose See It’ is considered the oldest existing aerial photograph. The image depicts the city of Boston and was taken from a balloon by J.W. Black on October 13, 1860. It can still be seen at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. Since the time of hot balloons, photographers have used planes, helicopters, and cranes.

Drones got their breakthrough as a visual reporting tool in 2011 during the Occupy Wall Street events. By building really primitive camera drones remotely piloted by their cellphones, the activists of the Occupy Wall Street movement managed to livestream news from inside the camp on YouTube.

With camera drones, news media gained access to even the most dangerous situations and remote places on the globe, while simultaneous minimizing risk for photographers. With drones, visual transparency in journalism has undoubtedly transgressed into a new era, and the access to user-generated content from camera drones seems to be without limits. Beauty shots of landscapes, cities, towns and buildings as well as clips from natural disasters and ongoing conflicts add new dimensions to journalistic storytelling.

Ethical challenges of Drone Journalism

The four most important challenges faced by drone journalism enthusiasts, concern a) airspace regulations and traffic management, b) ethical and legal issues of remote piloting, c) surveillance and data collection issues and d) how to relate to the explosive expansion of drone hobbyists.

But the first and most difficult choice that editors have to make is this: To what extent should drone clips be a product and a service that news organizations should buy externally? To what extent should they develop their own expertise in the field? With the increasing user access to new visual gadgets, the news media face a situation in which eye witnessing is not only outsourced to citizen journalists. There is a movement from eyewitness to trusting robot eyewitnesses, such as camera drones, as well.

The established codes of conduct might not always provide good guidance in these grey zones of journalism data collection. For instance, how can accountability and transparency of the imagery be ensured if the remote drone pilot is unknown? And in what ways should news reporters best relate responsibly to the increasing use of nano-drones for civil purposes? Many nano-drones are of a format that makes them hard to notice indoors as well as outdoors.

The responsible drone journalism approach, elaborated by Astrid Gynnild and Turo Uskali in a new book on Routledge (106 pages) concerns drones as a data gathering tool as well as covering the drone industry as a news beat.

The evolving European U-space, which is soon (2019) going to regulate traffic up to 120 meters above ground, represents a grand challenge to drone pilots, professionals as well as to hobbyists. The emergence of this new traffic system, alone, also signalizes an urgent need for news journalists to dig seriously into drone future and drone innovation in general. Even before we begin to realize what is actually going on, we might discover that drones of all sizes, and with all kinds of sensor surveillance equipment, might impact and change society in ways that are still unthinkable.

Drone footage for visual news production

Forest fire at Pedrogao Grande near Coimbra (SIC)

Research conducted by Terence Jarosz showed that the quantity of drone footage is growing on the ENEX platform from a base of zero just over five years ago. 96% of ENEX partners are using drones for filming many purposes (Daily News 54%, Beauty Shots 35%) but risks of flying the devices and regulations remain key disadvantages of drone journalism.

In June 2017, a forest fire broke out in Pedrogao Grande near Coimbra, killing more than 60 people. Portuguese TV station SIC made drone footage of the wildfires’ aftermath and the content was one of the most shared and broadcast pieces of footage on the ENEX platform.

Also, a survey of ENEX partners shows the opportunities and the challenges of using drones for news coverage.

© TV2 Norway

As a main consequence, it appears clearly that using drone for journalism — or dronalism — requires codes of conducts and ethical skills but also the responsability to stick the regulations and security issues.