“Aerojournalism”: it’s about more than just ‘stunning’ photos

Earlier this year, InterDrone invited me to teach a class about “drone journalism.” Then, Jeff Foster of The Drone Coalition asked me to write about drone journalism for his site. It’s an important topic especially in light of the fact that 1 million drones are expected to be sold this Christmas, and inevitably some will be used by journalists or…’citizen journalists’ at least.

So in blog format, here is the class I taught. Do you agree?

Aerojournalism, dronalism, call it what you will — but drone journalism is coming.

It already has in some capacity. Right now it’s in its nascent stages — it’s quite common to see stories on Mashable or Huffington Post showing, “Canadian Rockies Are Magical In Stunning Drone Video” or “Drone Offers Beautiful Views of Massive Flower Garden.” CNN was quite public about its use of a drone to cover the 50th anniversary of Selma (Jon Stewart throws some solid jabs at CNN reporting on the drone, not using the drone to report: watch this video starting at the 4:30 mark.) But one day in our lifetimes, drones are going to becoming so ubiquitous that they will become a news gathering tool alongside a pen, paper, microphone or iPhone.

December 2012: I was in Costa Rica working on a photo essay for my photojournalism degree at the University of Missouri, before what I had hoped would be my last semester of college. But going through my degree requirements, I realized I was going to be one credit short of graduation.

Out in the jungle of Costa Rica, I quite literally stumbled upon a drone journalism class. Between chasing down monkeys to study their nesting patterns, we rested for lunch, and I explained to one of the professors my dilemma.

That professor would be teaching the Missouri School of Journalism’s first-ever drone journalism class, and he said I could audit it for one credit. I had never even heard of drones at the time, but I had no choice — I signed up.

There, we talked about using drones for journalism —the ethics, the legal issues (the law was quite a bit different in January 2013 then it is now in September 2015). We learned how to fly them, practicing in the school’s agriculture arena. And we even fly them a few times — once even covering a prairie fire.

The types of stories that can be shown with drones are endless. Here are the photos that ran in The Guardian and The Washington Post during the 2013 protests in Bangkok, Thailand over former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra. 28,000 people were there, according to news reports.0304But to really understand what 28,000 people looks like, most people say you would simply have to be there yourself to experience it. That is unless of course, you have a drone. Here’s the photo The Nation ran.



The same goes for stories involving natural disasters. The 37-foot Red River Flood caused destruction in the South, and CNN’s drone footage takes you there.

The drone can show, not tell, important questions like, “what was the scale of this?” It can give a broader perspective.

Aerial photography is certainly not new to journalism. It’s quite common for major TV networks to use helicopters to show traffic, fires or police chases. It’s dangerous to put a person in a flying machine over a fire on a moment’s notice, not to mention costly. Some estimates cost that a helicopter costs $1,300 per hour on average. A drone on the other hand, costs about $1,300 for a one-time fee, and no fee per hour beside the operator’s salary.

There are major roadblocks to drone journalism. The laws keep changing and vary by state and city, so, for any business operating a drone, it’s complicated to know whether something might be legal in one city but not its neighbor. But one thing is clear. Without a Section 333 exemption (which requires the operator to have a pilot’s license), drone use for commercial purposes is 100% illegal.

And that is a huge problem.

For one, the FAA sent the Missouri School of Journalism’s drone journalism course a “Cease and Desist” letter. That means, the school can no longer legally educate its students on proper drone safety, laws, ethics and application.

But it’s more than just a problem for the school. It’s hurting journalism and public safety.

A photo shot with a drone by a hobbyist is 100% legal. The same photo shot with a drone by a trained journalist for their newspaper is 100% illegal.

News outlets want those valuable images. While they can’t send out their own staff to make that photo, they could embed a tweet of an aerial photo submitted by a reader.

News outlets have traditionally worked with police departments and fire fighters to safely cover events from the ground. It’s common practice for news outlets to gain trust with emergency response teams and go through some level of training to get a press pass, allowing the bearer to cross police or fire lines to report on breaking news or receive access to crime scenes and other restricted areas.10

It’s only logical that news outlets would do the same with drones — present their drones to the emergency response teams and discuss the appropriate way to handle the drone. The scene of the fire is not the appropriate time to introduce yourself to the fire captain.

A trained journalist knows this. But as hobby drone users get validation from their photos being used by news outlets, they will only continue to fly their drones, leading to dangerous situations, such as what may have happened during the California fires where emergency response teams grounded their helicopters out of fear of colliding with a drone.

Journalists should use drones to cover events such as fires, protests or other natural disasters. In fact, it’s likely safer than sending a photographer onto the ground amongst riots and tear gas, or sending a photographer into dry, burning brush during a fire. But there needs to be some sort of communication at hand — having the drone journalist synced into air traffic channels, or establishing an agreement with fire captains about what type of situations is safe to have a drone and which situation isn’t.

09Of course, there are other concerns. Until the technology improves, flying over crowds is still perceived as highly dangerous and should only be done by a trained professional.

But drones have the potential to be a powerful tool in journalism. Until commercial drone use is legalized, expect to see the clickbait stories that tout the drone, and not the story. And once journalists can use drones, we’ll see another level – literally — of reporting that tells valuable stories.


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