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SPY LIGHT: A drone over Cape Town, South Africa.
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SPY LIGHT: A drone over Cape Town, South Africa.

Airborne scoops

Technology | Will drones find a home in American journalism?

Issue: "Blind exiled brave," Aug. 10, 2013

Rubber bullets and tear gas canisters weren’t the only things flying above Taksim Square in Istanbul, Turkey, during early June protests against Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan. While riot police forced demonstrators out of the square, a small drone with four helicopter-style rotors hovered overhead, capturing video of truck-mounted water cannons spraying jets at the crowd.

The drone’s mesmerizing, bird’s-eye footage later appeared on the video-sharing website Vimeo, uploaded by the drone’s pilot, a young man from Turkey who shared his name only as “Jenk K.” He uploaded several drone videos documenting the demonstrations, which had resulted in at least four deaths and left 4,000 protesters and 600 police injured over three weeks. The pilot even posted a video of his drone being shot out of the sky, allegedly by police. (Undeterred, he was back in the sky with a friend’s drone soon after.)

As a player in the effort to document and publicize Erdogan’s heavy-handed response to anti-government demonstrations, Jenk K. could be called a citizen journalist. He’s part of a small but budding movement to use drones for journalistic purposes. In a June paper in Digital Journalism, University of Texas at Arlington professors Mark Tremayne and Andrew Clark documented a few rare examples of drones used for journalistic purposes, ranging from the investigative to the voyeuristic:

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In May 2011, The Daily, a now-defunct iPad newspaper, and CNN used drones to survey tornado damage in Alabama.

The same month, reporters in Australia used a drone to capture footage of a secretive, island-based government detention center.

Later in 2011, private drones recorded demonstrations in Warsaw and Moscow.

In 2010, paparazzi used a drone to spy on Paris Hilton as she vacationed in the French Riviera.

More recently, South African police arrested a man who was using a drone to capture aerial footage of the Pretoria hospital where Nelson Mandela lay ill. He had hoped to sell the footage to media organizations.

In their paper, Tremayne and Clark point out that guidelines on the ethical use of drones in journalism seem to be lacking. Yet drones have the potential to be quite useful to journalists who need to report everything from traffic jams to parades to storm damage. A cheap surveillance drone like the one Jenk K. flew retails for around $1,100—about the cost of two flight hours in a helicopter—and is safer to operate.

“If I was a news director and I couldn’t get a helicopter out ... but I knew we had a drone, and had an HD camera on it, I would be more than willing to use it to provide some sort of aerial footage,” Clark told me. But Americans are mistrustful of “unmanned aerial vehicles,” and scoop-seeking reporters might be tempted to test the boundaries of privacy. Until some ethical guidelines are in place, Clark says, “I think there’s going to be a lot of hesitancy about using them.”

Currently, U.S. regulators are keeping reporters’ drones grounded. The Federal Aviation Administration has banned commercial drone flights until it finalizes flight rules in 2015. The agency carved an exception for hobbyists flying remote-controlled craft no higher than 400 feet. That means, for now, American citizen journalists can use a drone, but paid ones can’t.

Daniel James Devine
Daniel James Devine

Daniel is a reporter for WORLD who covers science, technology, and other topics in the Midwest from his home base in Indiana. Follow Daniel on Twitter @DanJamDevine.

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