Sensors and Journalism

Drones for Journalism: An Overview of the U.S. Industry

The field of drone journalism in the United States is unlikely to remain static. Just a year ago, there were very few known examples of journalists using drones to report local stories and we knew of only a handful of cases internationally. Recently, though, we’ve seen a number of journalistic works incorporating quality video shot inside the United States using high-end drones. We have more evidence of enterprising photojournalists experimenting with cheaper camera drones to cover breaking news and color stories. Beyond these uses by news industry employees, we have also seen drone footage by hobbyists find its way into mainstream media. The Federal Aviation Administration, which has regulatory authority over U.S. airspace, asserts the right to regulate small drones, but its sole prosecution to date was dismissed by an administrative law judge.1immediately appealed to the full national safety board. Regardless of the eventual outcome of the case, additional bodies of law and ethical principles will affect how journalists use drones. A separate section of this report explores those issues in detail and describes the regulatory outlook. While the difficult legal environment has slowed journalists’ use of drones, it hasn’t stopped it entirely.

A Typology of Drone Use Despite the pace of change in drone journalism, rough groupings have emerged: high-end specialists, enterprising generalists, and “the crowd.” It seems credible to predict that this typology will last. The case study about NPR’s Planet Money and its use of a cinematography drone, found earlier in this report, represents the high-end style of the field. To film a portion of a documentary, the team hired SkySightRC, a small agency that uses tens of thousands of dollars worth of kit and flies as a twoperson team: a camera operator working in tandem with a pilot. ABC News used footage by the same company for its coverage of the Colorado floods in September of 2013. The advertising and movie industries employ similar companies, both domestically and abroad. Overseas, the BBC and the Australian Broadcasting Corporation take the same high-end approach—expensive equipment operated by at least two highly trained people with lots of attention paid to the safety of the people in areas where they fly. Considering the contested legality of professional civic drone use, it may be surprising that at least three insurance companies have been prepared to write policies covering professional camera-drone flights inside the United States. To understand generalists’ use of drones, a useful source is a survey run by the National Press Photographers Association in March of 2014.2results revealed that many newsrooms across the country are experimenting with small drones for journalism. The precise number is very hard to confirm: 172 survey respondents to the NPPA survey (who did not have to state their names or employers) said their companies had actually used a drone for newsgathering.3small consumer-grade camera drones costing hundreds, not thousands, of dollars. The Stories The subject matter of drone-shot footage varies. Professional photojournalists and camera operators have shot the aftermath of natural disasters and traffic accidents for breaking news. As color pieces, they’ve filmed spectacular architecture, crowd events, picturesque weather, and landscapes. An even larger number of respondents, though, said they wanted to use drones but were prevented by legal restrictions, safety concerns, and the expense. Journalists who fell into this group said they would use drones in the same ways as their bolder peers, noting additional benefits. A number of respondents said they would employ drones to get around obstructions; either for reasons of personal safety, police restrictions, or difficult environments. A few vivid examples:

  • “ Recently we had authorities burn down a house filled with explosives. A drone would have helped us get images of action going on at the scene and the fire itself.”

  • “ We did a video about the fifth anniversary of the closure of a GM plant. It would have been nice to go on an adjoining property and do a fly by to see the sprawling facility at more than eye level. Instead, we just drove by the fence and shot video.”

  • “ Drone aircraft could have given us better perspective on a story we are covering right now: ice jams in a river and the threat of flooding. We cannot safely get close-ups of the problem with a news crew. A drone could fly, give us a better angle and safer.”

  • “ Pretty much any story that police calls a crime scene.”

  • “ Major news events where access is limited and roadblocks prevent us from getting close enough to get the shots needed.”

The Economics Respondents repeatedly cited the lower cost of drones in comparison to helicopters as a significant benefit. In the words of one respondent: “For my helo costs, I could probably have a dozen HD-capable drones in the air.” Another wrote, “The cost of using a helicopter or fixed wing aircraft is high, anywhere from $400 to $1,800 per hour. A drone, such as the DJI Phantom, costs less than $23 per hour, making aerial news photography cost effective for daily use.” Around two thirds of the survey respondents worked outside the TV industry, meaning they hadn’t traditionally been able to pay the helicopter costs necessary to obtain aerial footage. However, that part of TV’s competitive advantage may be in danger. One respondent wrote, “Our competitors have helicopters and are [using them to get footage from news events where access is limited] every day. Although they are paying an expense my company won’t cover.” The Risks and Concerns When it came to the risks and problems associated with drone use, the main points of interest concerned privacy and safety. With regard to privacy concerns, NPPA survey respondents’ attitudes ranged from believing that it

was enough for journalists to follow current laws and ethical principles, to observations that these new tools with different characteristics mean journalists will have to rethink how ethics are applied. For example, one respondent said, “The media has legally, ethically, and respectfully used wireless microphones, tiny cameras, and super-telephoto cameras without invasions of privacy for decades. It is not in the interest of legitimate news organizations to alienate our audience by invading, or being perceived to invade, privacy. We will conduct ourselves with the same level of professional integrity with drones.” Another said, “You have no reasonable expectation of privacy when out in the open or in a public place.” Some respondents, however, could see new risks to privacy. “I don’t trust all of us to use a drone properly. With a helicopter, people can see and hear it. But with a drone, they can be virtually invisible.” Two responses articulated risks to safety associated with drones operating in a competitive environment:

  • “ There is a safety aspect. Police helicopters fly between 400–600 feet, media fly between 700–900 feet. I don’t trust that person flying a drone not to interfere with a manned aircraft trying to impress the boss. Today, we waited to the last minute to cancel a live shot due to lightning. We could see the storm on radar, but the reporter didn’t want to disappoint the producer and kill the live shot. I finally did. Safety first. But that reporter would’ve done the live shot, lightning be damned. And given a drone, who knows?”

  • “ It’s actually a very real concern. More and more newsrooms are being staffed by younger and younger people who have the ’get it on the air now’ mentality and the historical checks and balances of a newsroom just simply aren’t there anymore. I think drone use in a newsroom should be strictly regulated, much like satellite truck operations. Only one or two people in the newsroom should be authorized to fly a drone and I think the drone and the operators need to be licensed. I’m not in favor of letting everyone fly or providing a drone to each journalist. That’s very irresponsible.”

Drone Video From “the Crowd” News organizations also access drone footage from people who don’t formally work in the journalism industry. After an apartment building exploded in Harlem, N.Y., on March 12, 2014, the New York Daily News acquired footage shot by a 45-year-old business systems consultant named Brian Wilson. Lifestyle website The SFist embedded YouTube-hosted aerial video of a massive pillow fight in the city’s Justin Herman Plaza on Valentine’s Day of 2014.5drone enthusiast Beto Lopez, who has also flown his DJI Phantom above concerts, and sporting and community events. Self-described storm-chaser Brian Emfinger shot footage from his DJI Phantom 2 drone, flying it after a tornado destroyed homes in Little Rock, Ark., on April 27, 2014.6attracted more than 1,600,000 views on Emfinger’s YouTube channel and the Associated Press had paid for reuse rights. At time of writing, YouTube reported that the video was played more than 2,400,000 times, well above the range of 500– 1,000 the typical video on a newspaper website gets, according to the Tow

Center’s “Video Now” research report.7Emfinger distributed his video commercially using NewsFlare, a company that brokers deals selling usergenerated video content to media organizations. The three cases above are clear-cut examples of news companies using drone videos shot by people who aren’t their employees. There are, of course, other more ambiguous cases in which media companies used drone footage with one eye on the regulatory environment. The Spokesman-Review published a story on January 1, 2014 using aerial video of a community lake-swimming event. Jesse Tinsley, a photographer employed by the Review, said he shot it on his day off using equipment he’d bought himself. Both the photographer and the newspaper’s editor told journalism commentary site Poynter they expected they would therefore avoid legal action from the FAA.8reported similar contrivances. Of course, not all news video reaches audiences through newsrooms. Drone footage flourishes on Vimeo and YouTube, and is publicized via Facebook and Twitter. Both of the major manufacturers of consumer drones showcase their customers’ videos in galleries on their websites. Mostly, the videos document topics outside the realm of journalism, although weather events and extreme sports, including surfing, motocross, and mountain biking, are popular subjects. As drone journalism in the United States takes shape, it has emerged with three broad production styles: specialist, generalist, and crowd. Each, however, has its own caveats. Specialist, high-end usage is rare, and not often publicized; lawyers and managers from the commissioning companies advise caution. Use by generalist news photographers appears to be constrained by the ambiguous regulatory environment; few newsrooms are making serious investments in camera drone training and equipment. Meanwhile, cheap camera drones are rapidly democratizing aerial video, some of which benefits news consumers, but further muddies the operating environment for journalists who are banned from doing exactly what amateur pilots can do legally.