Exploring the Use of Drones in Journalism

By Allen Etzler, Contributer to the News Media Alliance

As floods ravaged Louisiana and claimed the lives of more than a dozen people, it quickly became obvious the situation was dire.
But the breadth of the damage is still hard to picture for many who are on the outside looking in.

Now, thanks to new rules released by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) on August 29, journalists will have a new tool at their disposal to illustrate the scope of a story such as the Louisiana floods.

As the FAA’s new rules, coined Part 107 by the FAA, are now in place, journalists are able to use drones without obtaining a pilot’s license.

“If you’ve ever covered a hurricane, large tornado or flood, you know that it gets really hard to describe to people in any meaningful way just how massive the damage is,” said Matthew Waite, founder of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln’s Drone Journalism Lab.  “It’s hard, in words and ground based images, to convey scope and scale. I covered hurricanes in Florida, tornadoes in Arkansas and all kinds of disasters in between and it was frustrating as a writer to try to get people to understand the size of it all. A drone is a purpose-built context machine. It can give people that understanding in just a few seconds of video, a few frames of still photos.”

Now, aside from hobbyists, anyone who wants to fly a drone must pass a 60-question exam at a flight school. However, all drones between .55 and 55 pounds must be registered with the FAA, regardless of the intended use.

Waite, a leader in the field, recently held a drone journalism bootcamp on campus involving dozens of journalists from metro daily newspapers, weekly newspapers and community radio stations. He knows incorporating drones into day-to-day journalism will take some time, and will involve an adjustment period.

“The truth is I fear a ‘I’ve got a new hammer and now everything is a nail’ period in newsrooms where every story gets a drone shot. Local festival? Drone shot. High school football season starts? Drone shot. City unveils new sewer substation? Drone shot. Every car accident, house fire, ribbon cutting and church social gets a drone shot,” Waite said. “It’ll get boring very, very fast. But I also feel like we have to do that. We have to overuse before we start to understand the technology and just where it belongs.”

Journalists who are still adapting to how to use technologies like Snapchat and Twitter need not worry. They likely won’t need to learn how to use a drone on top of all of the other tools they have to figure out.

The FAA is requiring people to obtain a special Remote Pilot Certificate to operate a drone for journalistic purposes.

“Because the test isn’t something you can just bop on down to your local airport and take, I think that’s going to make it a specialty, at least for a while,” Waite said. “Not everyone in a newsroom is cut out to pilot a flying robot around, same as some people aren’t cut out to be data journalists or the old photographer versus writer divide.”

Waite said he expects local and national broadcast television to emerge as the early leader in drone journalism, but eventually daily newspapers and data journalists will be able to get the most effective use from drones.

“It’s compelling video at a low cost (a drone will likely cost around the same amount as a new digital SLR camera) — music to most news directors’ ears,” Waite said of television’s reasons to use it. “But I see the real future of drones as data journalism tools, used to map things and visualize environments. And that field is wide open right now.”


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