By John Ainger
No longer the play thing of voyeurs and the CIA, drones have the potential to shape the way journalism is made. But they face immense challenges in getting off the ground.
One of the most fascinating technological developments of the 21st century, alongside the iPhone, Netflix, driverless cars, Facebook and the Kardashians, has been the remarkable propagation of the Unmanned Ariel Vehicle, or by its more sinister name: the drone.
Best known, perhaps, for its controversial role in killing members of Daesh’s top brass, the humble drone is gradually finding its way into kids’ Christmas stockings, onto the kit-list of the modern day voyeur and most importantly for NewsNext, into the newsroom of today’s super-journalist.
High and Mighty
Despite the fact that you have to be a fully trained pilot to fly one, drones can be said to form one third of the ‘future of journalism’ power trio, alongside Virtual Reality and robotic news; and is slowly starting to gain traction among the world’s major media outlets. It’s not surprising really, as the use of drones for newsgathering purposes brings forth a number of unparalleled advantages.
Perhaps most obviously, they offer a completely different perspective of an issue or event than the banality of a cameraman whose feet are firmly attached to the ground. Indeed, our little unmanned flying machines have captured some truly compelling shots such as this footage by the BBC of the Auschwitz concentration camp. Only from the air can you truly comprehend the scale of the Nazi’s largest killing machine.
Secondly, journalists are finding it increasingly difficult to get to the ‘centre of the action’, be it due to physical or political impediments. Increasingly, media houses lack the financial resources to provide adequate insurance for their correspondents and freelancers lack the security of a major newspaper. The impacts caused by natural disasters have of course always been challenging to reach especially when they occur in isolated regions. Drones are naturally adept at overcoming these challenges, with recent footage highlighting the damage and destruction of Typhoon Haiyan or Nepal’s violent earthquake. Drones have also been able to capture the eeriness of Fukushima and the exhaustion of Kobani – two places where no human dares to tread.
In an increasingly complex world with unprecedented levels of interactivity, it is somewhat ironic that it proving harder for journalists to cover conflict. Gone are the days of Don McCullin wandering the streets of Saigon taking snaps as he went. Today’s journalists are either under strict supervision by state authorities or banned access altogether. Under these circumstances, drones provide journalists with the potential to regain editorial independence.
Margaret Looney in a blog for the International Center for Journalists (ICFJ) uses the example of the Kenya floods in 2013, ‘reporters could only gain an overhead view of the damage by riding in government helicopters, which could dictate not only what they see from above, but also the resulting coverage’.
In some cases such as the Gezi Park protests in Turkey, even this would be unfeasible. In comparison to helicopters, drones are an absolute bargain, yet have the same abilities to capture the scale of an event for example, the number of people in a protest, the amount of land covered by water or the scale of damage on a battleground.
And drones are not just limited to mere film footage, but can also contribute toward other journalism trends, most notably data journalism and virtual reality. One such example is the 3D mapping of Nairobi’s Dandora dumpsite captured by African Skycam – Africa’s first drone-alism team.
The challenges faced by African Skycam though, perhaps best highlight those faced by drone journalists all over the world. In January, the Kenyan government, all but put a ban on the flying of drones by civilians. In order to be granted a permit to fly one, you have to undergo nearly $1000USD in fees and bureaucracy.
This pattern is mirrored across the world. Cambodia, Morocco and Uganda have outright bans, while famous cases such as the mystery of Al-Jazeera’s drones in Paris highlight that drone-alism is often seen as a more of a threat to privacy and security than an opportunity.
Drones have poor street-cred and quite rightly so – their involvement in shady wars has perpetuated fear and suspicion around the world. But drones also have immense potential to act as a watchdog in the sky, overcoming the ineptitudes of human evolution. Drones need a PR overhaul, the likes of which would put Chris Brown to shame, in order to really take journalism to the skies.
John Ainger is a British journalist specialising in the interesting and the global. Find more work at planetmundus.com,firstname.lastname@example.org or his twitter handle @johnainger. Also find him on linkedin at https://nl.linkedin.com/in/johnainger