Little brother peeking drone reporter

Drone journalism logsDND EDITORIAL

Media become little brothers if they don’t start protecting data gathered with drones and wearables.

Authorities would love to get their hands on the raw material.
Hong Kong, Umbrella revolution

Hong Kong, umbrella revolution. Should a journalist hand over raw material if authorities ask? Photo alcuin lai/flickr/cc

Nothing reports the scale of a protest better than a drone. Occupy demonstrations, protests in the Middle East, the umbrella-revolution, the drone footage goes viral. But for the media, a drone at a protest offers more. An eye in the sky can survey the situation quickly. the footage can help a journalist later to analyse the situation, the amount of people attending, the intensity of the violence, the place of escalation, who started what. Possession of so much data makes the journalist a potential telltale, according to some.

American civil rights movements already uttered their concerns about media collecting images and data, and sharing that with the police. And such fears will only increase if journalists will be allowed to use drones, according to co-director of the Center for Journalism Ethics Kathleen Bartzen Culver1.

The number of subpoenaed U.S. news media is indeed growing, confirms a 2008 study by the University of Arizona2. The U.S. government asked journalists to hand over images, e-mail exchange and text documents. A refusal meant risking going to court or even imprisonment. Of course, eventually a journalist can appeal to his right to refuse information. But it is a lot easier and less time-consuming to give up the requested data. A lot less paperwork.

The problem isn’t U.S. exclusive. Many governments have become insatiable data collectors and they would love to gain access to data gathered by journalists.

So is sharing drone data with the authorities an option?

What if… say, a journalist is working on an item on illegal weed plants. A source points him to a certain area, a maize plantation, hiding a cannabis field. After the broadcast, the police asks for the GPS-coordinates. Share?

What if… the drone journalist films a demonstration turning into a riot. A part of the footages is broadcasted. Messy material, the take off and the landing of the drone, sequences showing faces, rioters fleeing, stepping into a car (the number plate is visible) and driving off, these parts are cut and replaced by journalistically even more interesting material, filmed by a colleague with a shoulder camera. Intelligence asks for the raw footage, to catch the ‘terrorists’. Share?

Keeping up the reputation

In the future, drones will be used by many groups: police, fire brigades, researchers, intelligence services, consumers and media. In the essay The drone as privacy catalyst3, Ryan Calo, former research director of the Center for Internet and Society at the Stanford Law School, makes the “inevitable” parallel with 1984, when George Orwell describes how flying devices cruise local areas and peek through windows. He writes:

(Drones) represent the cold, technological embodiment of observation (…) People would feel observed, regardless of how or whether the information was actually used.

That is the problem. You just don’t walk out of sight of an Eye in the Sky. In an Orwellian society, packed with flying cameras, a news organisation is one of the many peering bodies. And media organisations need to be aware of the effect of that on their reputation.

The drone must be operated in a fashion that does not needlessly compromise the privacy of non-public figures. If at all possible, record only images of activities in public spaces, and censor or redact images of private individuals in private spaces that occur beyond the scope of the investigation (Ethical code for drone journalists, by Matthew Schroyer4).

Such a code for drone journalists may seem overly careful. But then take into account the vulnerable reputation of the media. Are they seen as little brothers5, who obediently hand over their footage to any demanding authority? Or will the drone journalist successfully build a reputation of a necessary independent observant – a flying watchdog – who has the duty (and thankfully in many countries the right) to protect its sources and data against governments and authorities that serve a different cause than truthful rigorous news reporting.

Select before you collect, protect before you publish

Obviously building a reputation is harder than destroying it, so media need a careful approach in using new technology, including drones. In 2005 professor Bart Jacobs of the Radboud University in Nijmegen, suggested a rule of thumb for governments, to temper their insatiable urge to gather data. Select before you collect, he said6. For media that comes naturally, as selecting is at the core of efficient news gathering. But they would be wise to add this to the adage: Protect before you publish. Not as an exception, but as a rule.


This article is loosely based on the dissertation Droning the Story (pdf) by Alexandra Suzanne Gibb of the U.S. University of British Columbia. Gibb asks if drone journalists can protect their data in the same way as they can protect other sources.

  1. Culver, K.B. (2013), Ethics aloft: the pros and cons of journalists using drones. Also a good read: Culver, K.B. (2014) From Battlefield to Newsroom: Ethical Implications of Drone Technology in Journalism. Journal of Mass Media Ethics, 29(1), 52-64
  2. Jones, R. A. (2008), Avalanche or Undue Alarm-An Empirical Study of Subpoenas Received by the News Media (pdf)
  3. Calo, M. R. (2011). The drone as privacy catalyst. Stanford Law Review Online, 64, 29.
  4. Schroyer, M, (2012), A code of ethics for drone journalists
  5. But isn’t everyone using a device with the capability to record data, not a potential little brother? Welcome to the world of ‘sousveillance’.
  6. B. Jacobs, Select before you Collect Ars Aequi, jaargang 54, dec. 2005, p.1006-1009

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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