How drones have been used in journalism and the potential for future use

In April of 2013, Alexandra Gibb defended a master’s thesis for the Graduate School of Journalism at UBC on a particularly timely topic — the use of drones, or unmanned aerial vehicles, for journalistic purposes. Gibb, currently a CBC News Vancouver Scholar, considers defence and security reporting her specialty, and came to the topic of drone journalism through her longstanding interest in the use of drones for defence purposes.

In April of 2013, Alexandra Gibb defended a master’s thesis for the Graduate School of Journalism at UBC on a particularly timely topic — the use of drones, or unmanned aerial vehicles, for journalistic purposes. Gibb, currently a CBC News Vancouver Scholar, considers defence and security reporting her specialty, and came to the topic of drone journalism through her longstanding interest in the use of drones for defence purposes. In this interview with Lisa Lynch, Gibb discusses how she came to write ‘Droning The Story,’ how drones have been used for journalism thus far and their potential for further use.

J-Source: What first drew you to writing about the use of drones in journalism?

AG: I’ve been interested in national security issues since I was about 13 years old. And I’ve followed developments in drone technology, specifically, for about half a decade. When I started my master’s thesis at UBC, drone warfare was still very underreported, as was the appropriation and use of drones by law enforcement. Originally, I wanted to focus on those areas of drone use. But I realized that since I was a student, and had limited contacts and access, it would be a really difficult topic to report. I started to think about other ways of incorporating drones into a thesis when I had this eureka moment: I thought, ‘Aha! Drone journalism!’ At that time, I thought I had a completely original idea.

JS: You didn’t know journalists had started to use drones already?

AG: No, not until I started Googling around and realized others had beat me to it. Matthew Schroyer, who’s a data and drone journalist in Illinois, had just founded the Professional Society of Drone Journalists. Aaron Brodie, a freelance photojournalist and producer for CNN, had just used a drone to photograph tornado damage in Tuscaloosa, Alabama. And Rupert Murdoch’s (now-defunct) tablet publication The Daily had published a few drone videos too.

I realized, however, that what was still missing was an overview of the topic and a consideration of the ethical issues journalists face when using drones. So that’s what I focused on.

JS: A lot of the history you tell is really fascinating. I was particularly surprised to read that US drone research stalled after a member of the Kennedy family was killed researching remote-piloted planes. One usually thinks of the US as being at the forefront of aerial and military research; in this case, however, a lot of drone development happens in Israel, where they are deployed during the Yom Kippur War. Then Abraham Karem, aka the “dronefather,” comes to the US from Israel and helps jump-start the US industry by developing the Predator drone.

AG: The military history of drones, and their original intention, is important to keep in mind when we discuss how they will be incorporated into civil society, especially when we talk about some of the fears that might accompany the use of drones.

Predator drones were first used during the Balkan conflict. Since then, the US has used them in every military intervention — though it was only after 9/11 that they were weaponized.

Today, drones are an important element of the War on Terror. Their success over the battlefield has led to a dramatic expansion in their size and capabilities. Now we have drones the size of hummingbirds and drones the size of football fields!

JS: As you point out, however, drone building is not confined to the military. Drone projects are very popular with hobbyists and have become more popular with the rise of what’s been called the ‘Maker Movement.’

AG: “Makers” — which are similar to tinkerers and DIY enthusiasts — are increasingly building drones in their backyards, basements and garages. In fact, very sophisticated drones are being built by backyard hobbyists. Some of them are doing it just for fun, but others have started to make money from it. For example, former WIRED editor Chris Anderson started developing drones in his home a few years ago. Since then he’s founded and started a company that sells do-it-yourself drone kits.

JS: So there are two analogues here to the growth of the personal computer and Internet. First, as with both the PC and Internet, we see the coexistence of military development and backyard hobbyists. At the same time, just like commercial activity was prohibited on the early Internet, the FAA still prevents the commercial use of drones in US Airspace.

AG: Yes. Currently in the US, no commercial drone operations are allowed. So companies cannot use drones to make a profit. And anyone else who wants to fly a drone — aside from hobbyists — has to apply for special permission from the FAA.

JS: All of this is predicted to change in 2015, when commercial drone use is scheduled to be legalized.

AG: There’s so much money to be made in this industry. I don’t see the US restricting commercial drone operations for too much longer. The FAA itself estimates there will be 30,000 drones in US airspace by 2030.

JS: In the meantime, how have journalists used drones professionally if they can’t use them commercially?

AG: In the US, some journalists who use drones get around restrictions by not selling their images for profit. Some fly drones as hobbyists and either give their footage away or post it on personal websites and social media accounts. Aaron Brodie, for example, did not sell his footage to CNN — it was not a commercial transaction. He gave the footage to them for free, while getting paid for other work.

In the case of Murdoch’s The Daily, where the footage may have been for-hire, the FAA did investigate the situation. Some have told me The Daily could have received a warning to stop publishing footage, but I haven’t been able to verify that.

This doesn’t mean there have not been for-hire drones in other parts of the world. For example, paparazzi used drones in France to film Paris Hilton at a beach party.

JS: Your thesis gives some examples of the types of journalism best served by the use of drone imagery; not only breaking news reporting, but weather reporting, investigative journalism, and conflict reporting.

AG: One journalist I interviewed — Fox5 Vegas morning meteorologist Ted Pretty — has worked for several media outlets that do not have a helicopter. After reading some articles on drone journalism, he decided to build his own. He purchased a kit online and took a class through Unmanned Vehicle University. He’s been able to capture videos, including the construction of a Wet ‘n Wild theme park in Las Vegas, and post them on YouTube.

Australia’s 60 Minutes used a drone for investigative journalism when they were denied entrance to a sensitive detention center. They flew the drone overhead and were able to capture images of fire damage and overcrowding.

JS: That seems both promising and controversial.

AG: It was controversial: I suppose the producers felt getting images of overcrowding and fire damage was important enough to use a drone.

One issue with using drones for investigative work is that governments and law enforcement agencies might become interested in journalists’ data. If courts already subpoena journalists for their unpublished photos and videos, you can imagine that as journalists collect more primary data, they are going to be subpoenaed for that too.

JS: It seems like there’s a lot of discussion of the possibilities of drones in conflict or disaster situations; for one thing, that’s where we find drones being used already; as well, it seems like a way to make conflict reporting a little less dangerous.

AG: It’s really important to note that drones — especially in conflict areas — are not supposed to replace traditional journalistic newsgathering. The expectation is that drones will capture aerial images of dangerous or hard to reach places, but this should always be paired with contextual narrative or eyewitness accounts. Boots-on-the-ground journalists are still very important because they can convey the tactile details of conflict in a way a drone probably never could.

But even the use of drones to supplement journalism raises logistical and ethical issues. For one thing, the military isn’t going to want civilian drones flying over combat zones. It would be too difficult to determine what was friend or foe, and even friendly drones could compromise military operations.

JS: You discuss the problem of decontextualizing or even gamifying the coverage of war through reliance on drones.

AG: Some people have said drones ‘gamify’ war (though not everyone agrees) because young men and woman who grew up playing war games on PlayStation are now sitting in air-conditioned trailers in Nevada flying hunter-killers half a world away and using a joystick to control them. They’re not on the ground experiencing the carnage of war. So, arguably, it becomes easier to launch that missile. Journalists are not launching missiles, of course, but they are taking sensitive photographs and videos of potentially vulnerable people. With a drone, even if a journalist is only 500 feet away from where the scene is taking place, he or she may be focusing on the images sent by the drone. They may not be thinking about the events or people under its omniscient gaze.

JS: Do you think the distance between journalist and subject changes the nature of the viewer’s relationship to the images as well?

AG: In terms of the images captured, we’ve seen a lot of sensational military footage winding up on YouTube. Peter Singer describes it as “war porn.” It’s possible that if journalists use drones to capture similarly sensational footage, it may become a form of voyeuristic entertainment. Viewers may have a harder time recognizing that the people being photographed by the drone are experiencing something traumatic.

JS: You suggest that in some cases the drones themselves might be contributing to that trauma.

AG: Yes. For example, a drone called the Aeryon Scout was used by Libyan rebels to spy on government convoys when they were trying to overthrow the regime of Muammar Gaddafi. This same drone is being marketed to the broadcast media. You can imagine that for individuals who have lived with drones buzzing overhead during conflict, the use of this drone by the media might inflict further psychological harm on a population that’s already been traumatized by the carnage of war.

JS: Outside of conflict areas, the issue is not so much trauma as the invasion of privacy.

AG: The privacy threat is a big part of the discussion around drones. Ryan Calo, a former director at Stanford’s Center for Law, Society and the Internet, wrote that drones could be the “visceral jolt” that society needs to bring privacy law into the 21st century. The privacy threat with drones is very tangible: You can see and hear them hovering outside your window.

JS: One thing that came up for me while reading this thesis was: what about Canada? In many ways, Canada lags behind the US in terms of journalistic experimentation; is it the same for drones.

AG: My thesis focuses on the United States, but I do know there is a lot of drone activity going on in Canada. We’ve got several major drone suppliers, including Draganflyer based out of Saskatoon and Aeryon Labs based in Ontario. There are also lobbyists advocating for the industry. And commercial drone operations are allowed here. If a journalist wants to use a drone for commercial purposes, he or she can file an application with Transport Canada. They require quite a bit of information — you need to have a flight plan and the drone has to be insured — but it’s allowed.

JS: In that case, do you see yourself as a potential drone journalist?

AG: I have a second-generation Parrot AR drone. I fly it around my neighborhood, and people are always interested to see it, but I haven’t used it for storytelling. I’m a strong believer that tools shouldn’t dictate the story: If I come across a great story that could be better told by using a drone, then that’s a discussion I’d have with my employers and colleagues.

‘Droning The Story’ is available as a downloadable PDF; an overview is also online at the Tow Center for Digital Journalism site.