Robot Reporters

Will UAVs become as indispensable for journalists as notepads and digital recorders?

University of Nebraska-Lincoln researchers Matt Waite (left) and Carrick Detweiler use a Falcon 8 UAV to document the effects of drought on the Platte River. (Ben Kreimer, Drone Journalism Lab, University of Nebraska-Lincoln)

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There’s a really interesting story about the introduction of the Kodak Brownie, the first camera that existed outside of a studio. There were people writing these scandalous and almost hysteric pieces about the death of public life, because a photographer went into a Broadway play and used a flashlight and a Kodak Brownie to take a picture of an actress in a pair of tights. And everyone was scandalized by this. All of these learned people were discussing how all of society will never be the same because you could be photographed outside of a photo studio. It’s fun to think about just what those people would think of Smartphones with fantastic digital cameras on them. I can pull up an app on my phone and begin broadcasting live video to the rest of the world in a matter of seconds.

A lot of people have asked me, “When can I take the drone class?” I’m really hesitant to do that, actually. I’m not so certain that there should be a drone class. Should we teach a class on how to do Smartphone journalism? It’s just a tool. I think journalists in particular, and society in some respect gets a little too wrapped up in the tech, and not the result.

I was just in Germany for a few days, speaking to a media innovation conference over there in Hamburg, and there was a story that implied that the naked photos of [Kate Middleton] were taken with a drone. It turns out it’s not true, but they were all asking me this. What about these photos being taken with a drone? I said, “Well, I don’t know if they were or not. But, what I do know is that if you look at those photos, all of them are angled up, they appear to be from the ground looking up. It was somebody standing on the ground with an exceptionally long telephoto lens.”

But all of that is beside the point. What if they had been taken with a drone? Would that change anything at all about how you feel about them being a violation of her privacy? A naked picture of her in a private moment is a violation of her privacy no matter how the photo is taken. That’s why I say we all get a little too wrapped up in the tech, and not so much in the action.  A lot of our ethical discussions in the lab have been the same thing. There are laws against me going to somebody’s house with a long telephoto lens and taking pictures in their windows. There is absolutely nothing about a UAV that if I were to fly it up to your window and take photos of you, there’s nothing that about that that makes it any less wrong or illegal.

A good question that we have been asking ourselves is: Are these new ethical problems, or are they old ethical problems with new technology? And a considerable number of them are old ethical problems, just with new technology. The one that I don’t have a good answer for is the matter of profusion. Currently it costs many hundreds to many thousands of dollars to rent a helicopter or rent an airplane and get in the air to take pictures of someone. So there is a basic scarcity of airborne imagery in news organizations. What changes when everyone can put a camera in the air? What happens when instead of having one, or two, or three cameras in the air, you have 40 or 100 or 1,000. Is there a significant difference? My instincts say yes, but I don’t yet know what those are. I guess that’s why they call it research.

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