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.But 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.