Drones and journalism

April 2, 2014 |

The Economist has taken a keen interest in drone technology of late and has had an abiding interest in technology.  Those two themes come together in Eyes in the skies which looks at the use of unmanned aerial vehicles by journalists.  The article also deals briefly with the privacy issues.

It provides:

THE news footage is striking: fires burn on the streets of Kiev; scorched banners flutter on buildings; madding crowds stumble through the chaos below. It is also strange: although aerial, it does not look as if it was shot from a helicopter. The camera flies right up to burning buildings; people on the ground so near that you can pick out the colour of their clothes. In fact it was taken by a drone, a small, remote-controlled flying machine fitted with a camera and a transmitter. Though the word suggests an unmanned military craft of the sort Americans use to kill their enemies in Afghanistan, drones have civilian purposes, too. Their ability to go where cameramen cannot means that newsgathering, increasingly, is one of them.

In the past few months drones shot the most revealing footage of the protests that toppled Viktor Yanukovych, its corrupt president. They have also offered a bird’s-eye view of civil conflict in Thailand, Venezuela and elsewhere. They let journalists capture scenes that previously would have put their lives in danger, and made it harder for governments to lie. Journalists used drones to cover protests in Bangkok in December, filming clashes without having to dodge police tear gas and water-cannon, or lumps of concrete hurled by protesters. Drone footage published online to get around the Venezuelan government’s control of traditional media has contradicted official estimates of low numbers at anti-government rallies.

Drones are helping journalists overcome logistical hurdles, too. They have recently been used to cover fires raging in the Australian bush, and floods in southern England. “[Drones] give you a unique, airborne perspective that you can’t get any other way,” says Thomas Hannen of the BBC’s Global Video Unit. Their relative cheapness (basic models cost a few hundred dollars; fancier ones a few thousand) means that shots that once required a helicopter or a complicated set-up of gantries and wires are now achievable on a tight budget. And their usefulness will only grow as cameras get better and batteries last longer.

The rules governing drone journalism are tighter in America than elsewhere, says Matt Waite of the Drone Journalism Lab at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Only hobbyists and the government can use them; commercial entities are banned. That does not, of course, mean that they are not used for newsgathering, just that the only footage available is shot by amateurs. When a building in Manhattan collapsed on March 12th, for example, drone footage shot by a passing local soon turned up on news sites.

Britain allows commercial drone flights, provided the machines do not stray far from their pilots on the ground. But getting permission to use the machines in heavily populated areas is difficult, so they have mostly been deployed in the countryside. Australia is more permissive: Fox, a television network, has used a drone to cover cricket matches.

America’s Federal Aviation Administration says it plans new, less restrictive rules. But as drone-assisted journalism becomes commonplace, other legal fights are sure to flare up. One about privacy looks inevitable, since today’s laws were written when reporters moved in just two dimensions. The walls celebrities build round their houses will be useless once every paparazzo has a $500 flying camera.



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