How Drones Can Influence the Future of Journalism

Photo Credit: Anna-Michelle Lavandier

By: Anna-Michelle Lavandier and Colin-Pierre Larnerd

Whether it’s depicting a scene from the sky or giving a close-up look underwater, drones allow users to discover how evolving technology can aid in seeing and sharing a story.

Using drone footage as a storytelling tool has become increasingly popular in newsrooms across the country. Organizations from National Geographic to ABC News have already published drone footage on a wide range of topics.

Citizen journalists and independent drone journalists have also found ways to use drones in their own investigations while abiding by the rules and regulations set by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA). However, one unique use raises the question of how drone footage is used in investigative reports and whether they are done by those who identify as journalists or private citizens.

The following video was published by AJ+ featuring drone footage captured at the #NODAPL camps in North Dakota. The drone operators stated that they followed the FAA regulations and state-issued regulations on drones, but were still being issued charges by law enforcement, such as stalking. Anticipating a legal battle, however, the drone operator continued flying and sharing it online while preparing for the possibility of being taken to court for various charges.

This video features footage captured by drone operators at the #NODAPL camp as it flies over parts of the camp, the pipeline construction sites and law enforcement in the area. Published by AJ+ on YouTube.

The video showed a compilation of footage like law enforcement shooting at the drone, water being sprayed on protesters, and construction site progress.

One of the operators stated that the purpose of releasing this footage was partly to report on the activities of the camp that may not be otherwise seen, and partly to keep law enforcement accountable. None of the operators featured stated that they were reporters or acting as journalists in the video.

Various questions come to mind in regards to ethics and privacy when it comes to using drone footage in this sort of report. However, investigative reports prior to drone use also needed to toe the ethical line in order to expose injustices and corruption (which often led to change). Even without the use of drones, it’s challenging to balance true and accurate reporting while fulfilling the role as a community watchdog to injustice. Regulations may need to be given specifically to those who intend to act as a journalist. However these regulations likely won’t be worked out until courts intervene.

Because of the scarce reporting on the #NODAPL movement in its early stages, protesters, citizen journalists, and drone operators ended up filling the role of the media when it came to distributing footage of police brutality at Standing Rock. Many people who wanted to learn more would seek out these videos and share them with other people. Videos usually went viral online, since the drone operators and protesters were the only ones with access to the footage until it was picked up by other media organizations. The opportunity for citizens and journalists to use drones for similar goals or even to collaborate on projects is a real possibility in the future.

In an interview about the opportunities and challenges about drones with Skytango, Matthew Schroyer, founder of the Professional Society of Drone Journalists, mentioned that one of the biggest challenges facing those who want to use drone footage is the inconsistency of regulations.

“The number one challenge, hands down, is going to be navigating the regulatory framework,” Schroyer said. “For example, in the US, states and municipalities have been making laws on drones that are not consistent with how airspace has been managed at the national level.”

Issues such as flying close to law enforcement also raise questions about safety. It was briefly addressed in the video while discussing how members of the camp reacted when they knew that the drones were being used. Many had stated that they felt more safe because everything was being recorded and published online. The #NODAPL camp primarily used tools like Facebook and Twitter to publish these drone videos.

The Professional Society of Drone Journalists attempts to address this issue by establishing a code of ethics inspired by those set by the Society of Professional Journalists.

The use of drones for reporting by journalists is bound to increase in 2017. As drones continue to evolve, more and more citizens will invest in them and conduct their own investigations similar to drone operators at the #NODAPL camp.

Just as drones are becoming more prevalent in the world of journalism, so are other forms of media and technology like 360 degree video, virtual reality, augmented reality, and social media in general. The boom in new technologies is also allowing journalists to recreate geographical areas on 3D platforms such as Unity and producing interactive maps or videos. By using a combination of these new tools, journalists can better inform and serve the public.

It would certainly be a consideration for enhancing data gathering and reporting for journalists as well. While larger organizations have already tried experimenting with drones, it may be a difficult financial investment for smaller publications. However, with the rapid changes coming to drone technology, they will be affordable for those with a focus on a specific topic or geographic area. Daily news organizations can use drone technology to create an online feature for its audience or even supplement events and breaking news coverage, as drones are a more cost-effective alternative to helicopters. The low altitude drones can fly at provide clear footage while being non-intrusive enough to give an accurate depiction of events occurring with limited interference. They can also go places that may be difficult for people to report in, such as underwater, forest and mountainous areas, and places influenced by natural (or nuclear) disasters.

Given the number of places that drones have already gathered footage, we anticipate a big increase in its use with reporting, collaboration, and citizen newsgathering/distribution in the near future.