Contemporary Journalism Practice – “Drone Journalism”
Far from science fiction speculation, Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs), commonly known as “drones,” pose immediate and important questions for journalists. Currently used abroad to attack terror suspects and targets, U.S. military drones play an increasing and controversial role in modern warfare. From Afghanistan and Pakistan to Iran and Yemen, they have become a ubiquitous symbol of Washington’s war on terrorism (Corcoran 2012). But while no journalistic uses would have the lethal intentions behind military uses, robotic technology poses serious legal, ethical and social implications (Culver 2014: 53).
Bringing a new dimension to news content and delivery, “drone journalism”, as a digital development cited by the 2015 edition of Trends in Newsroom, offers an inexpensive way to put cameras and sensors in the air for gathering images, information, and data in reporting. While their potential as a newsgathering tool is only just now being explored, proponents for the application of drones in journalism and new reporting emphasize the expanded capability they provide at a minimal cost (Culver 2014: 53). Developed for civilian and commercial use, the low-cost aerial platform is a small fraction of the price of news helicopters and commissioned manned flights, breaking down traditional aerial newsgathering.
Stijin Postema (2015), Journalism lecturer at Edinburgh Napier University, who recently published News Drones: An Auxiliary Perspective, foresees drone expertise as becoming less of a specialty, and more of an integral part of the digital journalist’s toolbox to inform the public about its world in the best possible way. However, although there is a Professional Society of Drone Journalists, for Postema (2015: 12) it is questionable if “drone journalism” will become a professional occupation. He argues that using drones in journalism will not alter core journalistic activities of news gathering, analysing and publishing; but rather the footage and data obtained by using a drone will merely supplement or enrich these activities.
Used as an auxiliary tool for newsgathering, Australian media outlets are moving towards drones for crisis reporting, particularly when surveying damage from natural disasters when it may be difficult or dangerous for journalists to report (See: The ABC’s drone scenes captured of the damage wrought after Cyclone Winston hit Fiji.). Aside from being expendable, drones can also provide the public with far more dynamic crisis-based stories. A slightly elevated view of a scene can greatly aid people in providing context and emphasis of the sense of scale than a journalist could safely deliver on the ground, as seen in these excellent drone shots:
Moreover, they can be outfitted with advanced surveillance tool such as geographic information systems (GIS) to map the extent of wildfires.
Remote sensors can also be used to gauge the release of radiation from a failed power plant, such as the 2011 Fukushima nuclear plant disaster where the veracity of official accounts of radiation levels were dubious (Culver 2014: 52). Listen to this podcast by Mathew Schroyer, a founding member of the Professional Society of Drone Journalists, who discusses the ways that journalists are using drones, and how they can be used as a check on government power.
However, if innovation starts with values, not technology, as drones are deployed not just for civilian and commercial use a number of serious legal, ethical and social implications need to be addressed. In 2014 we saw Australian drone journalism hit the headlines in controversial style when 60 Minutes flew a mission over the Christmas Island immigration detention centre. Unlike the US, Australia has long embraced the potential of civilian UAVs, however the event raised a lot of questions: is drone journalism a legitimate tool in pursuing public disclosure, or an invasive, unregulated practice and a hazard to our airways? Collecting data on a large scale can be done, with even smaller commercial drones threatens privacy on many levels.
You can read the current Professional Society of Drone Journalists’ Code of Ethics that addresses the additional responsibilities inherent to drone technology here. However, while this code seeks to address a variety of considerations Journalism ethics faces the same infancy, as the legal decisions evident in warfare, in considering the consequences of drone technology for a variety of reporting needs including investigative, disaster, weather, sports, and environmental journalism.
Culver, KB, 2014, ‘From Battlefield to Newsroom: Ethical Implications of Drone Technology in Journalism’, Journal of Mass Media Ethics, vol. 29, no. 1, pp. 52-64. Available from: 10.1080/08900523.2013.829679. [11 November 2016].
Corcoran, M, 2012, ‘Drone journalism takes off’, ABC News, accessed online [11 November 2016], < http://www.abc.net.au/news/2012-02-21/drone-journalism-takes-off/3840616>