Matt Waite: use drones to improve investigative journalism

Drone journalism logs

Drone journalism is much more than making photos and videos. Drones can be used for rigorous research methods.

Us such, they are the perfect tools for a more scientific approach of news gathering, and that is what journalism needs, argues ‘drone professor’ Matthew Waite in an interview with Your Flying Reporter.
Drone professor Matt Waite

Matt Waite flying an old model A.R. Parrot drone at a conference.

To Matthew Waite of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, accuracy is the most significant journalistic virtue of our time. In 2009, he won the Pulitzer Prize1 with the political fact-checking website PolitiFact. When Waite founded the Drone Journalism Lab in 2011 he had similar ambitions: experimental research using drones to contribute to rigorous – yes even scientific, investigative journalism.
But now, three years later, more than anything Waite is frustrated.

In 2013 the Federal Aviaton Administration (FAA) told him he had to stop flying until he got their permission. Since then the university’s drones are grounded. Waite: ‘In the U.S. you need a pilot’s licence or a certificate for the commercial use of a drone. The problem is, there is no programme to obtain such a certificate2‘. The letdown did not stop the drone professor. Instead he build an indoor flight hall (the university’s gym), and encouraged students to go abroad and practise outdoor flying there. Waite strongly believes drones will be a versatile journalistic tool. Not just for cinematographic applications. He things the drone offers a much more interesting feature for future journalists.

Drone Journalism Lab , students and professor Waite

Students of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln at work in the lab. Waite standing on the right. Photo: Drone Journalism Lab

Journalism’s ministering angels

‘When debating the future of journalism, people always talk about the drone videos. I kind of shrug at that, it doesn’t take a lot of imagination. Don’t get me wrong: the majority of these devices will be used in photo and video journalism. I just think the real future is in investigative journalism. In using sensors to gather data from large areas we usually cannot cover. Especially environmental journalism is one of the clear areas that can really benefit from that. “Environmental changes often take place on a broad scale, and they are best visible from above. Maybe not to your eye. You may have to use a multispectral camera to look at a slice of the electromagnetic expression. You may have to analyse the infrared signatures to see changes in the water quality or infestations of algae in waterways. Or, more clear to the eye, you could analyse changes in the landscape caused by human development. You could, for example, analyse drone images to determine if the water flows across a landscape are altered or cut because of the building of houses and roads.”

Environmental journalism: data gathering by drone

Drones gathering water samples for an environmental journalism project. Photo: Drone Journalism Lab

“Drones can be equipped with onboard sensors, but they could also be used to place sensors at hard to gain access to location. UAVs offer many opportunities to get into the air regularly and inexpensively and collect data.”

But, hold on, is it still journalism we are talking about, this sounds more like scientific research?

‘Exactly! Data journalism already borders on social science and data science. If we use new methods of gathering information, we can use our time-tested storytelling ability to explain our findings to our public. A lot of today’s journalism is boring and formulaic: somebody in the government said this, the opposition said that, and that is the story. I don’t think we can longer be content with two anecdotes and a couple of quotes. We need better ways to engage audiences, and we need to show innovative ways to collect news about our communities. We need to inform, interest and entertain. The era of three quotes and a headline is over. So journalists would be wise to look at other areas of academic study that do inquiry, and learn.’

Why not leave that to scientists?

‘I am worried about the level of rigour in journalism for quite some time now. I believe that using aerial robotics, drones, sensors and scientific methods to collect data and analyse it, could really ramp up the amount of rigour in news reports, and restore some of the faith people have lost in journalism. Readers need something new, and this is one area.’
‘The on example I think about is the Fukushima nuclear disaster. The Japanese government informed the people about the radiation levels, but their numbers were disputed. At such a moment, accountability journalism cannot be done with a hand-held Geiger counter because if you go to Fukushima, you are going to die. Yet a drone journalist could fly his drone to the area near the power plant, carry out independent radiology measurements, compare the data with that of the government, and find out if they were telling the whole story.”

The American drone drought

In 2012, Waite’s students used the drone for a less dangerous purpose. They reported on the Nebraska drought, by visualising how one of the most important water resources in the area – the Platte River – had ran dry. Their drone footage was obtained quicker and cheaper than it could have been done by helicopter. Unfortunately, the experiment was also the last time a drone was employed in U.S. journalism for more than two years. In January 2015 the FAA finally allowed the first twelve media organisations to explore the possibilities of drones in journalism. Others followed.

For some drone journalists that was way too late. To work anyway during the American drone drought (2013-2014), some of Waite’s (former) students fled abroad: ‘Last year Ben Kreimer travelled to India to collaborate on a documentary. Then he went to Kenya to participate in the African Skycam Project. Some stories were published by the Nairobi Star. He filmed phenomenal images of a giraffe at eyeball height, you see him flying into a herd of elephants, he followed a rhino around the plain, and the drone ascended to a tree where gibbons hopped up and down branches. This footage was later used by CCTV, during an item on poaching and conservation in Tanzania. The amazing areal shots, combined with the report of a ground-based local journalist, worked really well.’

3D rendering Turkish mosaic

Drone footage was used for this 3D rendering of a Roman mosaic in Turkey. Photo: Drone Journalism Lab, Ben Kreimer

3D storylands

A few months later, Kreimer cooperated with the Drone Journalism Lab in Nebraska, for his assignment to film an archeological dig of a Roman mosaic in Turkey. The drone photos were sent to the university and reworked into a digital 3D model. 3D technology has journalistic storytelling potential, thinks Waite3.
‘If something terrible happens somewhere, a drone journalist can map it, render it and explore it. You could actually let people wander through a place where a news event occurred. You could for example go to the Philippines after the typhoon and follow the wreckage along the shore and let people walk through that. The technology isn’t that far away. The Swiss company Pix4D already made a model of a Swiss chateau, shooting 6000 photos with ten cameras and three drones. It’s not hard to imagine walking through such locations with for example an Oculus Rift4.’
[Donetsk Airport – Schroyer’s model, Army SOS]

The flying lawnmower

Matthew Waite is an advocate of drone technology. Despite that, he has often referred to drones as ‘flying lawnmowers’, to the dismay of some members of the drone-community, who say he is fear mongering. ‘The lawnmower [metaphor] still stands, because the devices do carry risk. The propellers are made of thin plastic, but very sharp, and they spin very, very fast. If an operator doesn’t know what he is doing, and a drone lands in a crowd, someone is going to get hurt badly. Online you can find enough pictures of forearms and hands sliced up, looking like a shark bit them.’
The comparison doesn’t concern all models. ‘I got my fingers in one of those Parrots once, and it stings. The DJI Phantom is maybe lower on the threat matrix too. You probably need to go to the hospital for a few stitches if it cuts you. But could it kill you? Highly unlikely. The bigger the device, the more potentially destructive.’

For that reason Waite thinks that restrictions and regulations should be based on the drone’s weight. “I hope the U.S. will move in the direction of Australia. There the government has all-but deregulated the use of really small ones, of 2 kilograms and below.”

Aviation censorship

The FAA has restricted the professional use of drones until 2015, and only recently allowed for commercial organisations to experiment albeit under strict conditions. American hobby drone pilots have far more freedom of flight. Causing the odd situation of citizen being able of more news gathering practises then journalists. And the American aviation authorities to function as a censorship organism, reprimanding journalists and universities that disobey. One could argue that is should be the other way around. Reporters, with the public task to inform the public, should be permitted more in airspace than hobbyists.

Waite, resolute: ‘No. That would touch the foundational principles of freedom of expression. Free press rights are for everyone in the U.S. I do not believe in carving out rights for journalists that regular people can’t have. I do think that news gathering should be protected, though. But who is the news gatherer? Is that any person who is perfectly capable to broadcast live video around the world with a cell phone, within a moments notice? I’d say, yes. I don’t think that certain industries with good lobbyists should have any more rights to the skies than anyone else. The skies are a public good, they are for everyone. Yes, we need rules to deal with safety, managing air traffic, to protect people’s privacy, and keep everyone on the ground safe. But at the same token: it is our sky, we should all be able to use it.’


  1. Pulitzer Prize is a prestigious American award for journalistic productions. The prize is named after newspaper tycoon Joseph Pulitzer (1847-1911).
  2. Since September 2014 the FAA has granted a small number of permits under the Section 333 programme
  3. Read also: Donetsk Airport, the new war reporter is equipped with a drone
  4. The Oculus Rift is a pair of glasses that brings the user into a virtual world

Stijn Postema

Stijn Postema is a journalism lecturer and freelance reporter from the Netherlands. He has a background in journalism, arts and design.

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