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"Good" Drones In The Service Of Serious Journalism

Drones don't just make news, they are beginning to cover it. Brazil street protests are an early testing ground. But for now, the entertainment press is out ahead of the pack.

A drone captures Brazilian demonstrators massing below
A drone captures Brazilian demonstrators massing below
Pablo Abarracín

SANTIAGO — Last June we were able to observe from the air how 250,000 Brazilian protesters unnerved authorities. The display was there for all the world to see of the mass disapproval of Brazil's multi-million-dollar budget devoted to World Cup preparations when public transport was in a state of disgraceful neglect.

It was like an episode of the X games. The pictures, beautifully taken from the air, were broadcast by TV Folha, the Folha de S. Paulo newspaper's television service, using a drone. Let's call it a "good" drone.

TV Folha's innovation was just the beginning as we are becoming increasingly familiar with drones. Yet something strange has undoubtedly happened here. About a year ago, the word drone would remind us only of attacks on civilians in Afghanistan or Pakistan, unjustified deaths, "excessive" collateral damage, death and devastation and let's face it, the common denominator, the United States. Yet these monstrous, metallic bumblebees have started to abandon their military vocation for civilian life. They are surprising us with their unknown and peaceful uses as instruments of communication.

"Marvellous little tool I want one for my broadcaster," editors are saying as they realize you no longer have to spend millions to film from the air or take overhead pictures, or give coverage to situations where presence is risky or which are simply inaccessible to human film crews.

TV Fohla's drone — Photo: joaowainer via Instagram

Factory accidents, fires, flooding, sporting and arts events, political meetings, monitoring water resources or bird migration: the good drone won't ask for extra pay for hazardous work or overtime hours.

Still, regional papers and media have been slow to adopt drone use in press work. Beside the cases cited like Sao Paulo or a recent fire in Santiago, filmed by a Chilean TVN drone, systematic use of drones for reporting is still a long ways off.

Red carpet drones

And yet, in a curious twist, it is the entertainment media that are taking the lead here, at least in Chile. The most notable example was Chilevisión's use of a drone during the gala party for the last Viña del Mar Song Festival. The contraption filmed guests walking the red carpet outside the Viña del Mar Casino. And viewers were likely surprised to be able to see such close shots of personalities taken from above. The good drone was well-placed to show necklines and décolletés.

With the current absence of norms governing air space security, and possible future telecom interference or privacy violation, news channels and and websites should hurry to adopt the good drones – in good ways.

Folha de S. Paulo's drone captures the mass demonstrations

The new era of digital media opens the way for the use of technology that was until recently of concern only to scientists or engineers. But trends arrive before we know it and whoever takes advantage - in this case of a new means of communication - will attract audiences among a public increasingly familiar with video use and creation, YouTube and multi-media production.

Innovation is not merely about having the smartphone application, YouTube channel or Vimeo account. It is about presenting original and innovative content in an attractive and different form. The really innovative media are already making space for multi-media content, data journalism and drone use.

Media content production is increasingly more complex and inter-disciplinary, which is why some American universities are incorporating drone use into journalism courses, like Nebraska's Drone Journalism Lab or the Missouri Drone Journalism Program.

So while plans are already in the works for drones to be used for distribution by Amazon or a pizza chain, the question is: What are editors and broadcasting chiefs waiting for before they include drone use in their reporting strategies? The risk is that entertainment shows will monopolize the use of these good drones and pull attention ever farther away from journalism that matters.

New audiences demand new products, and as for entertainment coverage, we already have all we need.

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