Drone journalism: worth exploring

A valuable new tool may soon appear in the sky near you.

By Helen Pike

Drones like this one are creeping into newsrooms and could be scouring the skies for breaking news sooner than you think. (Photo: Helen Pike)
Drones are becoming part of many newsrooms’ strategies. (Photo: Helen Pike)

Journalists turn their eyes to the sky

By Helen Pike

A mile wide and an inch deep, shallow enough to jump from sandbar to sandbar without getting your feet wet—that’s the Nebraska Platte River on a good day. But not during the historic 2012 drought.

The media flashed images of dead fish on sandbars, dry cracked mud and beached boats with no water in sight. Yet a journalism professor at the University of Nebraska believed these images, taken at ground level, only told part of the story.

“We thought it would be interesting to get shots from the air,” says Matt Waite. He borrowed a drone from the engineering lab on campus—a low-budget way to provide breathtaking aerial images. “Give people a perspective that this drought extends to the skyline. I mean, it just goes on and on and on as far as your eyes can see.”

If you haven’t heard about journalists using drones, catch up. Drones are a big deal in a small package.

The aerial vehicles have been used to cover disasters in the U.S., protests like Occupy Wall Street, and have even given a helping hand to investigative journalists in Canada and Australia. Drones are inexpensive, effective and should be on your wish list.

Waite first came across the machines at a mapping convention in 2011.

“It’s me and 22,000 of my closest mapping nerd friends in about a four-block area and the vendor floor they have is just enormous. It’s difficult to see across,” he says. Waite remembers the demo video that caught his eye — a simple clip showcasing some mapping software.

“This guy walked out in the middle of a field with a tablet computer and this airplane. He pulled up a map of the area where they were standing and he drew a rectangle around the area he wanted photographed.”

He then relaxed and sipped his coffee while the drone flew overhead snapping pictures. When it finished, he pulled the memory card out of the flying machine and stuck it into the tablet. A few seconds later and presto — hundreds of images stitched together creating a high definition map.

[pullquote]”My mind just exploded.”

– Matt Waite, Journalism professor at the University of Nebraska[/pullquote]

“I was thinking, ‘oh, there’s every hurricane, flood, forest, fire, wild fire tornado… Any kind of biblical event that I ever covered as a reporter’. I could have been doing really high-level damage assessments within minutes.”

Waite went back to Nebraska and got the go-ahead from his dean: a drone journalism lab for the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, one of the first in America.

It’s a bird, it’s a plane—wait, what is it?


These days drones are everywhere. They’re monitoring borders, saving car crash victims and killing innocent civilians in Afghanistan and the Middle East.

But what’s a drone?

n intimate look at the guts of Mark Langille's multicoptor drone in Hammonds Plains.  (Photo: Helen Pike)
An intimate view of a drone. (Photo: Helen Pike)

The answer is almost anything in the air without a pilot, hence the technical and interchangeably used term unmanned aerial vehicle, UAV for short.

A balloon carrying a thermometer — drone.

A multicopter with a mounted GoPro camera — drone.

A military-grade weaponized Predator with Hellfire missiles — also a drone.

Waite turns on his Skype video-feed in his office in Lincoln, Neb. and holds up a drone. The machine has four silver legs, shiny red propellers and is the size of an iPad mini— it fits in the palm of his hand.

“The thing that I tell people is the word drone is almost utterly meaningless at this point.

“Is that $100 toy a drone when a $20-million Global Hawk that carries missiles is also a drone?” he asks. “That seems an awful wide gulf of technology.”

Transport Canada, the federal agency that regulates UAVs flying in Canada, has its own definition. Its UAV information page says, ‘basically, they could be considered to be any unmanned aircraft that performs a useful mission and can be remotely controlled or has autonomous flight capability’.

The business of flying

Just four years ago, Ian Hannah was delving into the wide world of drones from Britain. He had a camera operator background, but was a novice in UAV regulations. Today his Toronto company Avrobotics shoots with drones for the film industries in Canada and the U.K.

“I could see the potential of a very low-cost flying machine to get shots from the air. In some ways, (it was) a perfect solution for so many things,” says Hannah.

“At first you think you’re going to get up there, shoot some great video or shoot some film. I didn’t realize there’s lots of things that slow you down, and the SFOC application is one of them.”

The SFOC, Specialized Flight Operation Certificate, is Transport Canada’s certificate to legally operate a drone. It’s free, but the form takes around 21 days to process. Between 2007 and 2012, Transport Canada issued 293 certificates.

Each certificate is good for one flight. You go up in the air, fly around, land, and that’s it.

“The SFOC application for most journalists in Canada has been deemed too problematic,” says Hannah. “They need to go out the next day and shoot stuff, they can’t file a thing and expect three weeks later to be allowed to go and shoot it. It really doesn’t work.”

Just outside of Halifax, in Hammonds Plains N.S., Mark Langille started as a hobbyist and now operates Flitelab, one of the largest multicopter providers in the province.

“It’s never really come to the mass commercial market and that’s really what’s happening now,” he says, given the growing popularity of drones.

Langille, like other operators, is stuck between old regulations, new technology and a growing demand.

Maryse Durette, a spokesperson for Transport Canada in Ottawa, says the agency is working “cooperatively” with UAV enthusiasts in the interests of safety.

“One of the regions had a backlog of 80 applications that they had to work through and they were seeing three months delay,” says Eric Edwards, chair for Unmanned Systems Canada, based in Ottawa.

He says Transport Canada will roll out guidelines to help applicants along the way. By completing pilot training, passing airworthiness tests and operations standards, applicants will get through red tape and into the air faster.


Drones in Action

Drone journalism is a relatively new concept but is picking up momentum. Type in drone journalism on Youtube and 12,500 videos pop up from around the world. People are talking about it.

An academic paper by Andrew Clark and Mark Tremayne of the University of Texas dissected eight cases of drone journalism all over the world, including coverage of protests in Russia and Poland, natural disasters in the U.S and an investigative piece in Australia.

“Citizens may be able to use drones to highlight government abuse,” says Clark.

In places where government has a tight grip on media coverage, drones allow for a new perspective and more control over what is reported and how it is reported. For example, Australia’s 60 Minutes launched an investigative piece about the Christmas Island detention centre in 2011. Thousands of refugees were quietly locked away by the Australian government, all caught on camera.

The video was taken down, but transcripts online reveal an elusive piece as it unfolded. Liam Bartlett, the host, made an appointment to speak with a prison administrator, but when he arrived a guard made it clear he wasn’t welcome.

This is where the drone comes in.

“We’d tried the front door without success, so this was the only way to show how and where asylum seekers are detained — a bird’s eye view from an unmanned camera drone. It’s unconventional, but I think it’s the only chance we’ve got of being able to see inside,” says Bartlett in the transcripts.

[pullquote]”It’s unconventional, but I think it’s the only chance we’ve got of being able to see inside.”

– Liam Bartlett, Australia’s 60 Minutes[/pullquote]
In stories like this drones can play a crucial part. Without them, access can be impossible or dangerous.

“The first time I saw it operating I wasn’t quite sure if it was going to work or not,” says John Badcock. He first worked with drones on a shoot for CBC flagship investigative program The Fifth Estate as a cinematographer.

They recreated a scene for a piece called “Kidnapped”, which aired in April 2012, using a UAV to get some of the shots they couldn’t get from the ground. In the story, kidnappers boxed the victim in between their cars, hauled him out of his own, left his girlfriend behind and drove away.

“We used the drone as well as a couple of cameras on the ground to make a re-creation of that scene.”

Since that shoot, Badcock’s been sold on the idea. As far as he’s concerned, drones are a technology the CBC needs to get into as soon as possible.

Mark Langille lines up part of his drone collection and talks about their many uses in film and photography. (Photo: Helen Pike)
Mark Langille with two of his drones. (Photo: Helen Pike)

“I’ve been trying to push this technology at CBC. I’ve been met with quite a bit of resistance from insurance people and some management types that want just a turnkey operation,” he says. “Having said that, every journalist, every producer, every creative person that I talk to that is responsible for actually making these stories can totally see the potential.”

Drone journalism in Canada is still in its infancy. The regulations make it difficult for journalists to get ahead, and unless you have a lot of lead time like it’s hard to cover hard news.

Ethical questions

At the University of Illinois, Matthew Schroyer sits down at his desk to take a break from building a UAV, but can’t help talking about the tiny machine built from scratch.

“It weighs only about 15 grams and it can fit in the palm of your hand,” he says. “We can put a lot of good science and engineering lessons into this tiny package.”

Schroyer turned to drones when he discovered their ability to carry custom sensors, an innovative approach to data collection that could help him in his reporting.

The concept clicked immediately. Drones are the tool many journalists have been looking for. In 2011 he started The Professional Society of Drone Journalism, a community to help journalists explore the emerging field. The most important page is the code of ethics Schroyer created as a guideline for journalists using UAVs in their reporting.

His suggested ethics form a pyramid with newsworthiness on top, followed by safety, sanctity of the law and public spaces, privacy, and finally, traditional journalism ethics.

The average Joe might cringe at the idea of journalists using drones and for good reasons. The technology was already adopted by paparazzi and used as a stalking tool. Ask Paris Hilton; she’s been followed by one.

“That’s one of the bigger reasons why I put up the code of ethics online,” says Schroyer. “So that we can already put a line in the sand and say this is how we intend to use them.”

Waite says there are many things to consider moving forwards with ethics, but one of his main concerns is safety.
[pullquote]“Are we putting anyone at risk? If the answer is yes, then the answer is you don’t fly.”
– Matt Waite, Journalism professor at the University of Nebraska [/pullquote]

In the summer of 2013, Badcock and the Fifth Estate crew visited Dhaka, Bangladesh to film at Rana Plaza, the site of the building collapse that took more than 1,000 factory workers’ lives.

The CBC hired a UAV operator to film aerials of the rubble. The contractor arrived with the DJI Phantom, a pivotal support mount and a GoPro camera, set it up and took off within minutes.

“An establishing shot of your scene… can tell you so much about a story,” says Badcock.

“Like Rana Plaza, like the scope and the breadth of the pipeline, or like the mall collapse in Elliot Lake. There’s those kind of shots that unless you saw it from the air you wouldn’t really understand the scope of the disaster.”


Edit/Layout by Kristie Smith

King’s Journalism Review, November 2013.