Drone U Podcast: Are Drones the Future of Journalism?

The Citizen's Guide to the Future
Aug. 14 2013 5:18 PM

Drone U Podcast: Are Drones the Future of Journalism?

Every Wednesday on Future Tense, we highlight a talk from a leading thinker from Drone U speaking on the topic of what our drone future may look like. Drone U is produced in cooperation with the New America Foundation. (Future Tense is a partnership of Slate, the New America Foundation, and Arizona State University.)

This week, Drone U features Matt Waite, founder of the Drone Journalism Lab at University of Nebraska-Lincoln's College of Journalism and Mass Communications. Matt speaks with students Ben Kramer and Daniel Wheaton about what they have learned so far about using drones for reporting.

The first question they discuss is: Why would a journalist want to use a drone? Drones give journalists the opportunity to tell a story from a new angle. A reporter might use one to capture a wide aerial shot of a drought that could provide readers a new perspective on the impact of that event. The same thing could be accomplished with a helicopter, but instead of a newspaper spending millions of dollars over the course of a year renting a chopper for aerial photography, a small drone can be assembled for less than $1,000. So while drones might not initially enable journalists to do many new things beyond what existing technology allows, it allows them to do a lot more of it because of the low cost. With financial resources more limited, news organizations are increasingly turning to freelancers, many of whom may be using drones in the near future. Matt notes that this is "both interesting and terrifying from a democracy standpoint."

Using drones for reporting is not currently legal in the United States, but even if it were, there would still be ethical concerns. Flying a drone to take topless pictures of celebrities sunbathing may be a dream of the paparazzi, although it is not very different from what they can already do with a zoom lens. But the Drone Journalism Lab team feels journalism needs a rigorous discussion about privacy in general, beyond drones.

"There are trade-offs between drones and privacy, and between privacy and First Amendment rights with a free press. There’s a middle ground in there somewhere, but right now the discussion is OMG, here come the flying killing machines,” says Matt.

Join us on Aug. 21 for the next episode from Drone U, featuring Margot Kaminski, executive director of the Yale Law School Internet Society Project.

Future Tense is a partnership of SlateNew America, and Arizona State University.

Timothy Reuter is co-creator of Drone U and the founder of the D.C. Area Drone User Group. He also works on issues of international development.

Nabiha Syed is a media lawyer in New York and a visiting fellow at the Yale Law School Information Society Project.  She is the co-founder of DroneU.