Drones, disasters and journalistic ethics

Drones, disasters and journalistic ethics

In preparation for my participation in the University of Colorado’s Digital Ethics Symposium scheduled for March 14 and 15, I was asked to write 1,000 words about my assigned topics: Drones and disaster coverage.

The two topics could easily be separate sessions of the symposium. I found combining them into a single thesis was difficult.

In the end, I arrived at the idea that journalism’s job is to provide perspective and context to the news of a disaster and a bird’s-eye view provides more perspective than any other picture.

My essay follows:

Altitude Adds Perspective

A short tirade on the audience of disaster coverage and the potential use for drones in those situations


At the height of The Blitz in World War II, Edward R. Murrow went to London’s Trafalgar Square and put his microphone to the ground. Murrow, reporting for radio in the days before television, was broadcasting the sounds of people walking into underground bomb shelters.

According to Murrow biographer, Bob Edwards, the broadcast legend “wanted to show there was no panic in London.”

In analyzing that anecdote, we can learn something about disaster coverage, the use of emerging technologies in news and the overlap of both lessons.

Firstly, examine the intended audience of Murrow’s broadcasts. He was reporting for an audience who was not directly affected by the German bombing, and as such did not have to report on the instructions given to residents of London. They were a curious audience, as opposed to an affected one.

Such is true of both local digital news and national 24-hour outlets. As a disaster unfolds, the majority of the audience is not affected by the problem.

During the peak of the Black Forest Fire, for example, 38,000 people were evacuated from their homes but hundreds of thousands more unique users visited TheDenverChannel.com for coverage of that same fire. This proves that a majority of the audience consists of interested persons and not those directly involved.

That is not to say that the audience wants only qualitative reporting from the area — TheDenverChannel.com’s live updating situation map was one of the most popular items on the site during that disaster — but it can and will color how much attention some of the minutia will get, especially after an event has ended.

Although things would change greatly during Murrow’s career, radio was the cutting edge at the time of the incident in this anecdote. He was using sound to illustrate the scene and thereby give an audience half a world away the sense of what was happening in Europe.

Certainly showing instead of telling is just as important today.

Don Tapscott, who has studied the impact of technology on recent generations, writes in “Grown Up Digital” that lessons are best learned by helping students to discover for themselves. Similarly, he writes that journalism is under scrutiny by an audience who would prefer to be shown and allowed to discover.

“Instead of just trusting a TV announcer to tell us the truth, they are assessing and scrutinizing the jumble of facts that are often contradictory of ambiguous,” Tapscott writes.

So, for those who believe journalism is about showing the important events of the world – and not simply telling – drones are a cutting edge technology that could be the next step in fulfilling this desire and need.

But before they can fly and fulfil this promise, there is a lot of work to be done.

Sally French used her graduation gifts to purchase a drone after graduating from the University of Missouri. But, as she explained in an article posted to the Investigative Reporters and Editors blog, her parents didn’t understand the potential value of that purchase. They asked why she wasn’t buying traditional camera gear.

“What my parents didn’t understand is that a drone is the ultimate in camera gear,” French wrote.

Unfortunately, French’s article also notes that the University of Missouri had to reconfigure its drone program after receiving a letter from the FAA. It said they had to obtain a Certificate of Authorization to fly the aircraft

The Drone Journalism Lab at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln received a similar letter.

The FAA eventually allowed both universities to resume flying under COAs as a “public agency.” A COA cannot currently be granted to a private agency – e.g. a member of the for-profit fourth estate.

Currently, the FAA is appealing a ruling that it did not have the right to charge a $10,000 fine to a for-profit photographer who operated a drone over the University of Virginia in 2011. The decision, which was made by an NTSB Administrative Law Judge will now be reviewed by the full NTSB.

“The agency is concerned that this decision could impact the safe operation of the national airspace system and the safety of people and property on the ground.”

If the original decision is allowed to stand through all of the potential appeals, it could mean that there are currently no valid regulations on drones – opening the United States up to a huge number of new flyers. Imagine the chaos.

More likely, I believe, is that the appeals will simply delay any progress until the official guidance on drones goes into effect in late 2015.

At that time, news businesses will be faced with a serious question of which drones to acquire and how to use them. Should drones replace a helicopter and crew as the eye in the sky? How much investment or how many salaries would really be saved by that swap? What is the ROI for the business manager?

The University of Nebraska said at the ONA 2013 conference in Atlanta that it uses a team of three – pilot, navigator and camera operator – to fly its drone.

Returning to the example of the Black Forest Fire, the most incredible images of the disaster came from the helicopter that is operated by the coalition of Denver television stations. Cameras on the ground, or even inside the fire lines, cannot properly demonstrate the scope of such a disaster.

Altitude simply adds better perspective in an incident spanning as many acres as that one.

If drones had been available, even short-distance drones, imagine the enhancements the coverage could have had.

Instead of a photo looking down a line of cars trying to evacuate, a drone could have flown over the road and shown how many people were waiting to evacuate Black Forest. Instead of waiting until the Royal Gorge Fire was controlled, a media outlet could have flown over the bridge and park to answer the question that every tourist who ever visited the area was asking.

There is no doubt in my mind that responsible, legal drones could potentially enhance disaster coverage, for both the affected and curious audiences. In fact, I imagine that their use during disasters would have fewer ethical dilemmas than their use during a regular day.

One Reply to “Drones, disasters and journalistic ethics”