Elevating the News with drones

Drone technology is transforming journalistic storytelling.

Cameras attached to drones can capture amazing, engaging visual content, but drones also offer new ways to capture data through sensors attached to drones, not to mention the ability to get into areas otherwise inaccessible to journalists. And the technology has gotten smaller and cheaper and easier to use (and fancier, and more high tech, too, if you like to go in that direction).

It’s obvious that drone technology is here to stay, and it’s in everyone’s interest to better understand it and how best to incorporate it safely — and legally — into journalism.

With that in mind, a group of more than 100 journalists and technologists gathered in Berkeley recently for the first-ever conference focused specifically on the use of drones in reporting. On April 22, the JSK Journalism Fellowships at Stanford, The Center for Investigative Reporting and the News Lab at Google hosted Techraking: Elevating the News.

After years of confusing regulations and drone test flights, we are entering a new era where the rules will become clearer — and the real possibility that drones could become a common reporting tool in U.S. newsrooms within a few years.

It’s currently against the law for journalists to fly drones for commercial use (also known as Unmanned Aerial Vehicles) in the United States — and in many other nations. But in February, the Federal Aviation Administration finally posted its proposed rules for using drones in commercial work (including journalism) and the public comment period ended April 24. With some exceptions, the proposed rules look surprisingly flexible, according to drone journalism experts.

Reasons to be excited about drones in journalism

Elevating the News, a unique convening of journalists, technologists and drone manufacturers, brought together some of the best minds in the emerging drone journalism field. Conference attendees heard the latest developments in drone journalism, then collaborated on some innovative drone-reporting ideas that could introduce drones to newsrooms.

The winning idea was Drone Hound, led by 2013 JSK Journalism Fellow and now CIR Senior Editor Andrew Donohue, 2015 JSK Journalism Fellow Michael Morisy and AJ+ Executive Producer David Cohn. Drones would collect air samples in areas of high pollution and send the findings to a mobile app. Other teams suggested challenging the ban on drone use in Africa, using drones to survey populations, and creating repositories of drone images and videos.

How did this event happen?

The conference came together because of a unique partnership between CIR, the JSK Journalism Fellowships and the News Lab At Google. What we have in common is a deep interest in fostering innovation in journalism. The JSK Journalism Fellowships selects 20 outstanding journalists and journalism innovators from around the world to spend a year at Stanford University and seek solutions to challenges facing journalism. Two of our JSK Journalism Fellows are responsible for sparking the idea for this event: Sam Stewart (2013) and Dickens Olewe, a current fellow.

Stewart has been flying UAVs since 2013 as a way to take photos and videos from new perspectives. Dickens first thought he would dedicate his fellowship to creating a drones journalism working group that would focus on best practices for journalism. As he began to research and make more contacts, the idea shifted to bringing together leading experts in the field to discuss the use of UAVs in news reporting. We took the idea to our friends at CIR. Robert Rosenthal, CIR’s executive director, Joaquin Alvarado, CIR’s CEO and Kristin Belden, CIR’s events director, were excited to collaborate with us.

The future of drone journalism is …?

During the conference, we asked drone journalism experts to envision the future of drone journalism. Here’s what they told us:

And here is the YouTube playlist with the full interviews.