Matt Waite: “Drones will help give us new perspective on stories”

An award-winning journalist and a drone instructor at the University of Nebraska shares his views on storytelling with UAVs

Anna Savina

Matt Waite is a professor at the College of Journalism and Mass Communications, University of Nebraska, teaching drone reporting and digital product development. Before, Matt worked as a reporter at St. Petersburg Times. He also created and developed PolitiFact, a fact-checking project that was the first website to win the Pulitzer Prize. While working at the University of Nebraska, Matt produced an operations manual on drone journalism.

How has drone journalism changed over the years?

When we started this we had to explain to people what a drone even is—people still thought they were military weapons! The only place we could actually fly without concern were countries that did not have civil aviation rules about drones. The situation in US was so unclear then that people got in trouble all the time, including us. (We once got a cease and desist from the Federal Aviation Administration, which was terrifying at the time but now we’re proud of.) Now the use of drones for journalism, reporting, and photography is regulated and allowed in most places around the world, although it’s not necessarily welcomed.

The first drone was Parrot AR drone. It weighed only a couple of kilograms, was mostly made of light styrofoam, and was controlled by your iPhone, so it had very short range. The camera wasn’t stabilized so the video was really jerky and unstable. We got it because that was one we could afford right away. Later, when we got a grant, we upgraded to a kit from a company called jDrones. It had greater capabilities, like the modern drones that you see now, but it was ugly as it could be.

Parrot AR drone

Looking back at it now both of these were unbelievably inferior to the drones that we have today. The little trainer that I have here on my desk is the size of my hand and is 100 times better—and it only costs $100.

How did you get interested in drones?

It was a complete accident. I was at digital mapping conference in San Diego browsing the vendors and I walked by Belgian company Gatewing that was selling what they were calling “fully autonomous aerial mapping platforms.” It was like a remote control airplane that was connected to a tablet computer. The tablet had a geographic connection system on it, and it would allow you to draw a rectangle around a field. You’d tell drone where to take off and where to land and it would fly all over taking overlapping photos. Those would then be stitched together into a really high resolution composite image of the ground.

Previously, I had spent 10 years as a reporter in Florida covering hurricanes, and I always had to figure out how to describe massive damage to people in ways that they would understand. I immediately saw that this drone could help tell all kinds of stories with data mapping. I ran over the the guy and I told him I wanted one. They were $65,000 each and completely illegal in the United States because there’s no pilot.

It’s funny that in 2011 that was completely mind blowing, and now there’s literally an iOS app that plugs into your drone that will do exactly the same thing.

Can you tell us about what you’re teaching in your classes?

I don’t just teach drone classes, I try to incorporate all sorts of experimental video storytelling, including things like drones and 360-degree cameras to help people tell stories in new ways.

Over the last year I have started teaching professional training courses to journalists that want to become federally certified to fly drones here in the US. We started the first one here in Lincoln, and now are on the road doing four more this year. By the time we are done we should have somewhere in the neighborhood of 200 new people trained for drone journalism. That means they’ll also understand the ethical landscape, the legal landscape, and privacy issues that might be affected.

The next thing I’m interested in working on is better use of drones in data and investigative journalism, and in 360-degree video and virtual reality storytelling.

Imagine if we could take an image of a city block in Aleppo and people could put on VR goggles and actually walk that city block. Then we could annotate it with information about who lives here, how this place looked before the war, how it looks now. I think the ability to see and understand place and size and scale and context in virtual reality would be extremely powerful for storytellers. And it doesn’t have to be something as dramatic as war, it could be something as simple as statue, or a heritage site, or a building. A drone makes this simple to do.

What are the some of the best examples of drone journalism today?

In the last six months to a year we’ve seen an explosion of outlets using drones.

BBC had the first internal drone unit of any news organization in the world. One of the most moving and impactful things I’ve seen them do was for the anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz. They took a drone there and did a basic video that showed you what it looks like today. It was interesting to see the scope and scale of the place. I’ve seen thousands of photos of concentrations camps, but I have never really understood how truly massive they were until I saw the BBC drone video.

A lot of drone video emerged from CNN in the US, and now they have an internal drone unit. The first thing they did was for the anniversary of the civil rights march across the bridge in Selma, Alabama. It was nothing more than a video flying over the bridge, but it was perspective of the bridge that you’d never seen before. You could describe a lot of good drone video as a perspective you’ve never seen before.

What are the common mistakes people make with drones?

The biggest mistake is flying over people. These drones do not have redundant backup systems, so if something goes wrong, the drone will fall out of the sky in an uncontrolled fashion. The most common drones people are using now are anywhere from 3 to 6 pounds, big enough that if they fall from high enough they could seriously injure somebody, if not kill them.

These devices are so easily obtainable and inexpensive that a lot of people have not done the due diligence of learning the right way to fly them or learning the rules of the country they live in. And in almost every country on the planet you are not allowed to fly over people.

You see a drone videos all over the Internet—drones over large, densely-packed crowds, over large protests, over concerts, over sporting events—where if something were to happen to that drone and it were to go down, people would be hurt pretty significantly. I do not think it’s ethical for a journalist to be doing that. I don’t want news organizations to be encouraging flight over people. It’s dangerous and it’s going to get drones banned if something terrible happens.

What’s your opinion about the police ban of drones in Ferguson during the Black Lives Matter protest?

The police in Ferguson got what’s called a temporary flight restriction put in place. It was not for drones, it was for TV news helicopters, and they did it specifically to keep the media out—they didn’t want cameras on them while they did what they did. That’s a clear violation of the First Amendment and should not have been allowed to happen, but it did.

But there were still people that were bringing drones and using them. To me, that presents a bit of an ethical bind. If you have a government that is acting in bad faith, that is suppressing press freedom illegally and you know it, there’s an argument to be made that you should act against the rules and put your drone in the air anyways. I think it’s important to have that discussion in your newsroom and decide what’s important. Is there a legal way to push against the ban in the first place? If not, is there a moral argument to violating the ban?

Another example was at the Dakota Access Pipeline protest in North Dakota. There were a lot of activists calling themselves journalists who were doing really dangerous things with drones, like flying them at the police to antagonize them. Then they were screaming and crying when the police pulled out guns and shot the drones out of the sky. No one looked good in that case.

But, just like we have cell phone video on the ground of news events as they occur, we’ll have more and more drone videos of events as they occur. I think it’s just another check on police power. Another way to watch the watchman, as the old saying goes.

How much are publications investing in drone journalism? How can they measure the ROI of that?

Most newsrooms want a drone in the building, and there’s a good economic argument for it. You can get a really good drone with a really good camera for about $1,500— which is not that much money, especially compared to a manned helicopters that can go for about $1,800 an hour. So one hour in a manned helicopter costs more than buying a drone outright. And your second drone flight is essentially free, just the cost of the power of the batteries.

How do you measure success? You have to remember that a drone is a tool like any other. When the subject matter you are dealing with is large scale and you need the context and you want to show what the place looks like and you have a story to tell there, that’s the tool you need. So I would say you should measure success by how many people watch your video. You could try to mark in some way if a video has drone video in it to see how it performs against video that’s all on the ground.

How do you imagine this field in 5-10 years? What things do you find most exciting in the field of technology and storytelling?

For the next year or so, you’ll see newsrooms using drones to photograph every single story. The old saying is, “they have a new hammer and suddenly everything’s a nail.” But after that I think we’ll get into much more creative uses of them.

I’m really excited about the idea of using drones to create a virtual environments. Virtual reality is not easy or cheap to create right now, but if we use drones to create photo-realistic models of places and plot those models into virtual reality, that might speed things up pretty dramatically. I think we will see more virtual reality storytelling from publications like The Guardian and The New York Times—there’s already amazing stuff going on and I think you’re gonna see a lot more amazing stuff in the next 5 years.

In the same period of time, a lot of countries have got to really figure out their laws related to drones. And those laws include property rights and privacy rights. It’s hard balancing press rights versus personal privacy and property rights, figuring out how to allow people a private life while also unlocking the potential of these devices.

Do you have any advice or suggestion for people who are just starting in this field?

I think rule number one is learning the laws in your country. Some of these rules are very serious and can involve jail time or hefty fines.

Second, you need to think of what stories drones would be best at telling. For example, think about stories about climate change or extreme weather. When a hurricane goes through a place, the photographs from the ground start to look the same. Everything is really messed up, and there’s someone standing in the middle of the rubble. You don’t have a good perspective on how widespread the destruction is. And you can’t put it into words. But a drone can give you a level of understanding that ground-based photography really struggles with.

So if you want to use a drone because it will add more context, scale, and perspective to a story, ultimately helping people better understand it, then you’re on the right track. If you just want to make a drone video because drones are cool, that’s totally valid because they are cool, but I don’t know if that’s a good enough journalistic reason to use them.