“Drones should be protected like news sources”

Drone journalism logs

Drone expert Dr. David Goldberg. Photo: Goldberg

Drone expert Dr. David Goldberg


In 2013, David Goldberg published a report with two colleagues at the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism about the application of drones in journalism.

Technology has changed at lightning speed since then. What has surprised you the most?

‘What I didn’t see coming is that journalists are mostly interested in small drones. Marc Corcoran, my research fellow, is developing the drone policy at ABC Television in Australia. And even they are looking at drones below two kilograms.

‘I’m unsure how many journalists are going to take this up. Established media like ABC, CNN and BBC are very focused on doing this with all propriety. They are very cautious about how to set this up within their organisations, in keeping all the rules and regulations.

It seems that citizen journalist use drones more than mainstream journalists at the moment, as they don’t have to convince their bosses. I’m not saying they are less responsible. They are just more ready to use them.

The report outlines a future scenario. The rise of cheap, small and easy to use drones would lead to:
a ‘drone journalist’ arriving on the scene of a breaking story, removing a small multi-rotor from a backpack which is launched into a hovering drone swarm, mixing with drones, helicopters, and fixed-wing aircraft from larger media outlets, along with those of police, emergency services, and even bystanders.

‘That was a very idealistic scenario, yes. In the future, you will see the situation of a breaking news story where a number of user categories operate, either police, firemen or other first responders. So the difficult issue of coordinating the airspace will clearly arise. The mainstream journalist will have to give way in the airspace to others who have the duty to help and intervene in such situations. But this is still theoretical. I don’t think anybody has yet faced the situation where there is competition for scarce airspace.

What I also see more clearly now, is that it is much harder to use the drone for breaking news coverage than we thought. First of all, there are the weather conditions. It might be too windy. It might be rainy. The visibility might not be too great, for example because of fog. Secondly, the journalist needs a really sophisticated camera to reproduce quality images from a distance.

And then there is the regulation. For example, the restriction on using them in congested airspace, where a large number of people are assembled. These are maybe the very situations where journalists would like to use them.

Should journalists be able to report demonstrations?

‘Absolutely. And they do. It is literally a new angle on reporting. My concern is how the journalist finds a balance between usefulness and safety. It is not permitted to fly these things over a crowd, so you have to steer a certain number of meters away.

A high level sophisticated on-board camera could resolve that because you can stay at a distance. A high powered camera in a helicopter gets good images from a kilometre away. So the question is: how close does the drone need to be?

During the drone conference at the Griffith University in Brisbane, in November 2014, you said the drone was the next evolution of the camera. What did you mean by that? 1. What did you mean by that?

‘Photography has been around for a long time. The invention of the Kodak Brownie changed it from being a static phenomenon, into a mobile phenomenon. The drone is the next step, from mobile to flying and remotely controlled.

But there is another reason to look at the drone as a flying camera. A journalist has the right to use photographic equipment in the process of news gathering, in that they pursue press freedom. As a camera, the drone has a protected status. The court in Strasbourg2 quite often protects journalists who say they need to protect their sources of information because the court recognises that is essential to make the free press work. What I’m suggesting is that the drone should have the same protected status as a source.

What do you think about the Dutch police investigating ways to take down any flying drones in the air, at any given moment?

‘I think that is quite concerning. Worrying even. If there is some capacity to actually ground the drone… Well, as far as it concerns journalists, they may be pursuing investigative reporting, and using the drone for a legitimate news gathering purpose. If that can be somehow obstructed by the police or security service, that seems to me rather worrying. The issue then is: does the journalist have a right to use his flying camera, even if these are circumstances where the authorities disagree?

There is a Strasbourg case, involving an English woman who was detained by the police on her way to photograph an arms trade in London. She argued that her brief detention was an infringement of her Article 10 right3, as it was not based on any objective fact or evidence. And it detained her pursuing her legitimate purpose as a news gatherer. The court’s decision could be defining the use of drones in journalism.

But journalists have to accept some quid pro quo for using these devices. If a drone causes harm, the operator must be identified. So it seems likely that rules will come into force whereby the operator needs some kind of ID, and the drone contains some kind of ID information, for example on a microchip. It’s not anything I’m keen on, I’m being practical and pragmatic.

At the Australian conference, you also said to be concerned about aviation authorities carrying out censorship. Can you explain that?

‘It was a slightly dramatic turn of phrase. What I’m concerned about is that if journalistic use requires authorisation because they need some kind of certificate, then there must be some supervising authority. If such an authority, the aviation regulator, refuses to grant permission, without a proper independent appeal process, that means the aviation regulator is deciding who can fly a drone to cover the news, and who can’t. That is not what aviation authorities are meant for.’

Read the full report Remotely Piloted Aircraft Systems & Journalism: Opportunities and Challenges of Drones in News Gathering (pdf) by Goldberg, Corcoran and Picard (2013).

  1. The blog Journlaw published a news report of the conference: Responsible media use of drones should be exempted from laws
  2. The European Court for Human Rights
  3. Article 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights

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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