07.05.2018

Drones challenge freedom of the press and expression

In recent years, the use of drones in journalism has increased all over the world. Although aerial photography is not a new invention, it was previously available only to wealthy media outlets because taking aerial photos required renting a helicopter.

“Today, aerial photography has been democratized, because it is no longer limited by cost. The cheapest drones cost less than 200 euros, which means that anyone can do aerial photography,” says Turo Uskali from the Department of Language and Communication Studies. Journalistic innovations are a focal part of Uskali’s research and teaching.

The importance of videography in journalism and all other communications activities has increased in recent years.

“A few minutes of aerial video alone can be a bit boring,” Uskali says. “It becomes interesting when it enhances other video material. The most popular drone-captured videos on YouTube have several million views. Something in them is appealing.”

The first journalistic use of drones was for crisis reporting and their greatest benefits continue to be in high-risk situations. Drones allow reporters to maintain a safe presence in difficult and even dangerous places, such as flooded areas, demonstrations and sites of environmental disasters.

“Aerial news images are often more informative in showing what has happened,” Uskali explains. “A few seconds of aerial video reveals the damage done by a storm better than a traditional news image taken from the ground level.”

Early troubles and risk management

The early stages saw a variety of problems arise around 2010 and 2011, when the first drones started flying around. Enthusiasts and activists were the first to start using them, and freelance journalists followed soon after. At the time, the quality of the machines was poor and they were more difficult to control than today.

“STT News lost control of a drone in 2015 while they were still learning to use them. Their editor-in-chief tweeted that he would buy a cup of coffee for whoever found their lost drone,” Uskali says, laughing.

Drones have improved significantly from the early days, and they are now equipped with security features. For example, when its battery is about to run out, the drone automatically returns to where it started from. Certain no-fly zones are also programmed into them, including airports and military zones. This geo-fencing function is used to limit aerial movement over certain areas.

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Even though safety and usability have certainly improved, all risks can simply not be avoided.
Uskali explains further: “Flying objects always have a chance of falling. Drones these days are small and light, but they can still cause injury if they fall onto a person. The basic rule is never fly a drone over crowds of people. Drones can also disturb flight traffic. Amateur drone pilots causing trouble near airports have received major media attention.”

Learning responsible use takes time and effort

Responsible drone journalism requires training, knowledge of legislation and ethical considerations regarding the right to privacy. This requires more practice than picking up and shooting with a camera.
Even though Finnish aviation legislation for drones is one of the world’s least regulated, there are still certain conditions.

“The University of Jyväskylä is located in the vicinity of the Tikkakoski airport,” Uskali clarifies, “so we have to ask for flight permission and report at the end of each flight to Tikkakoski air traffic control.”

Finnish Transport Safety Agency Trafi is notified about the use of drones for training and education, and their use is recorded in a log. All necessary documents are available in case the authorities wish to check anything. In addition, instructions have been made for the use of drones. The drones are also covered by insurance.

Although the university’s location causes extra complications, it also serves as an educational example by proving that if you follow the rules, drones can be flown without problems, even in areas where their use has been restricted.

“By advancing the responsible use of drones, we have quickly risen to the top of drone journalism research and education in Finland and possibly even in Europe. A new book, Responsible Drone Journalism, recently published by Routledge is also proof of this,” says Uskali, who is also the editor of the book.

Struggle over the new technology

When it comes to new technologies, fear often arises from the thought that it could be misused. From the perspective of progress and an open society, we can think if this fear is enough of a reason to ban new inventions.

“Even a car can be misused,” Uskali points out. “Naturally, drones have received special attention because they fly.”

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According to Uskali, policies regarding the use of drones can be linked to the World Press Freedom Index. Top-ranked countries like Finland are less restrictive about the use of drones. In many authoritarian countries, the journalistic use of drones is completely prohibited. Even the United States has issued temporary no-fly zones around demonstrations.

“In 2016, the Sioux staged a major protest against the plan to build an oil pipeline near their lands in the states of North and South Dakota. When the first dramatic aerial images of the police using water cannons against the demonstrators started to spread, the authorities quickly set flying restrictions to the area,” Uskali says.

Thus drones can be seen as a test of freedom of the press and of expression.

Uskali believes that drones will become commonplace, just like what happened with smartphones. The European Union is currently creating a flight zone, U-Space, for drones, which would make different kinds of commercial drone use possible. One remarkable aspect may be the automation of drones. Different routes can already be programmed into drones, so that they go to take a picture of a given location and return on their own. Uskali envisions that this will open up new ways of operating for journalism:

“In the future, media outlets can have drones on their rooftops, which are sent to scenes of action in a few seconds to take photos or record live video. All this may be done with just the press of a button.”

Text and images: Sari Laapotti
Drone operator: Pasi Ikonen. Video editing: Sari Laapotti