There’s a drone at the door

2014-04-09 00:00

THE world of journalism is changing at a rapid pace, with new technologies now deployed in newsrooms that would have seemed like science fiction not too long ago.

The Oscar Pistorius trial — besides the other landmark moments that it has brought — has also featured one of these developments, with the presence of a drone filming events at the entrance to the court.

While this oddity is something new to the South African media landscape, the use of drones by media organisations is a growing phenomenon globally, which I predict will soon become common.

For those of you who are unaware of this technology, drones, or Unmanned Aerial Vehicles, are simply remote-controlled, camera-bedecked flying devices used to gather material in difficult locales, or to provide a fresh perspective on events.

The other day in Gauteng, Kagiso New Media and Jacaranda FM announced plans to run a “proof of concept” project, where they planned to use drones to provide real-time traffic updates. The two said they had already done several successful test flights.

In the United States, however, drones in journalism are becoming increasingly common. The University of Nebraska-Lincoln has established a Drone Journalism Lab and there is already a Professional Society of Drone Journalists, established in 2011.

Like the introduction of other new technologies in journalism, the use of drones has sparked discussion about ethics, in particular the privacy considerations of using the UAVs.

The Professional Society of Drone Journalists is addressing this with what it terms a “hierarchy of ethics”, which proposes that drones be used only in moments of overwhelming newsworthiness, that the operator must respect local laws and safety regulations, and does not compromise the privacy of “non-public figures”.

Privacy issues are not academic in this use of technology.

A report by the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism at the University of Oxford has documented a variety of uses of drones by media organisations, including paparazzi using them to take pictures of celebrity Paris Hilton.

But they can also be used more conventionally and legitimately by journalists. The now defunct tablet-only publication The Daily used drones to get footage of disaster areas in a number of U.S. states and the Australian 60 Minutes television show used a drone to get footage of a controversial immigration detention centre.

So ubiquitous are these devices becoming that recent reports say that fans at a local music festival were able to use their smartphones to have the devices deliver beers to them. Online retail giant Amazon is touting product delivery using drones in U.S. cities.

My own feelings about drones in journalism are ambiguous. I’m a fan of technology and of its potential for us to do journalism in new ways, but only when it extends our capacity to do what journalists need to do well — tell fascinating stories.

While I can see drones assisting in collecting material, I worry a little about the potential lack of context if this was used in isolation. A reporter covering a protest or a riot has the advantage of gaining multiple perspectives on an event through being on the ground doing interviews, being embedded in the drama and using traditional methods of reporting.

A drone hovering over an incident may provide a bird’s-eye view, but not a lot of intrinsic meaning without a meaningful journalistic narration. You can’t get much further away from the concept of “gumshoe” reporting and pounding the pavements.

But as technology pushes the frontiers of our work, so we adapt, and I’m certain drones will become a conventional tool of news gathering, with rules to define their proper use.

So, the question on your lips right now is probably whether we are likely to see drones deployed as part of news gathering at The Witness.

I joked about this the other day in the newsroom, but now I am starting to wonder about what “use case” we may have for the technology.

It would certainly provide an edge to sports coverage and, in fact, we already have had a taste of that, with some pioneering work done in Pietermaritzburg by enterprising local entrepreneurs at RC Helicam, which has been using a drone to shoot footage of the Dusi Canoe Race and Midmar Mile events, among others. So, you never know. Rather than knocking on your door, maybe The Witness will be buzzing overhead.

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• Twitter: @andrewtrench

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