Will the new generation of journalists live in an era of drone journalism?
Drones. They come in all sizes and prices. They come as toys for eager children or as killing machines for the military. They come indie-styled from DIY enthusiasts or at the ready from specialised companies. They are, in short, coming. But are they coming for journalists too? Will the new generation of journalists live in an era of drone journalism?
Drones are unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV). Depending on the model, drones can be controlled remotely or they may be autonomous, buzzing across the skies, directed by GPS. With the relentless advancement in technology, drones are becoming increasingly sophisticated and are now fitted with cameras and numerous sensors. They are so powerful in fact that people have rapidly found ingenious ways to put them to full use. Drones are used to monitor across vast expanses of land such as agricultural farms and wildlife reserves. The police uses drones for reconnaissance missions or for border security. Even Hollywood covertly makes use of drones in its evergreen quest for more jaw-dropping and immersive scenes.
The benefits for journalists are evident too, especially for those who are in the field, like many science journalists. Journalists can use drones to report on disasters such as hurricanes, tornadoes and wildfires. Having an above-the-ground view may give journalists a better perspective of the extent of a disaster. By making use of sensors attached to drones, journalists can measure numerous parameters such as radiation levels in inaccessible areas. An environment journalist may also be keen to use drones to collect specimen such as polluted water samples while an exploring nature journalist can use them as communication relays so that they can touch base when reporting from remote areas.
Drone journalism appears to make so much sense that two universities in the US have already incorporated drone use in their journalism programs. The Drone Journalism Lab at the University of Nebraska and the Missouri Drone Journalism Program at the University of Missouri both teach journalism students how to make the most of what drones have to offer when reporting a story. They also teach students how to fly drones, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) regulations and ethics.
But does drone journalism really have a future? Currently, practically no one uses drones for journalism in the US. This is because the FAA determined that drone flying for commercial purposes (journalism is considered a commercial purpose) is illegal. Drones, unfortunately, are also getting a pretty bad reputation. Their reported use by the US military have caused an estimated 3,000 casualties, including civilians, in countries such as Yemen, Somalia and Pakistan. And apparently, drones are central in the targeted killing campaign waged by the US in those countries.
Closer to home, important ethical questions have been raised about the use of drones. While the vantage view that drones provide may be a definite advantage in many scenarios, it can also easily be abused, for example by invading people’s privacy. And many people are concerned about this. State Representative Casey Guernsey opposes drone journalism and is quoted by the Gateway Journalism Review as saying: “If we are moving into an age of news agencies using drones to collect information on private citizens, I’m definitely concerned about that.” There is also a safety issue since the possibility that drones collide with other drones, helicopters or even planes, while small, still exists.
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