News & Analysis AR DRone flights

Published on December 9th, 2013 | by EJC


Roundup: Drone Journalism In Tacloban

While initially used as a military tool, drones – or “unmanned aerial systems/vehicles” –are now also employed in civil appliances, as in in journalism. The technology is increasingly being used, because, as Tom Hannen, a senior producer at the BBC  Global Video Unit says clearly: “They allow you to tell stories you couldn’t otherwise do.” (He spoke about the use of drones recently at the Frontline Club.) Drones can be used to made videos from places that are otherwise inaccessible, and it becomes possible to convey insight and “feel” of the broader context of an event, for instance by zooming from the individual viewpoint toward the wider scope.

As such, the use of these “vehicles” is intuitive in crisis situations, which are chaotic and where it might be difficult to get an oversight of what is happening on the ground. Indeed, several news corporations have used drones on Tacloban, the island that was severely hit by the Yolanda/Haiyan super typhoon earlier this month. Two broadcasting companies, the American CNN and Dutch public broadcaster NOS used drones to portray the destruction on the island.

NOS in Tacloban, November 16th

The NOS published these images on November 16th. They were shot by camera man Eric Feijten, who used the drone to get an overview of the destruction. There is no sound with these images – the NOS published the footage from Feijten’s camera online. A part of it was also used in a narrated segment Feijten made with the rest of the NOS correspondence team in the Philippines. Especially striking are the images the fly-cam shot of a church of which only the walls are more or less standing. The images feature both a bird’s eye view and then a look into the interior of the building.

Feijten’s images got a lot of attention within the Dutch media landscape, as well as from other media outlets. The NOS has owned a drone since earlier this summer, but has not used them for any major productions until now (Dutch readers can took a look at this short article on the NOS website).
The camera man answered a couple of my questions via e-mail. His first criteria for the use of drones, is that they shouldn’t become a “gimmick”: “I think the use of flycams has to add something to the story and the way it is told, like it did in the Philippines. I usually rest my camera on my shoulder or use a stand or tripod. Using a drone adds another dimension.”

Naturally, some conditions lend themselves better for the use of drones than others – Feijten mentions heavy weather, such as rain or wind, make it difficult or impossible to use the drone. To find images that might be fit for the drones, Feijten says: “I can see where I am sending it using a video-transmitter that gives me the “pilot’s view” from the device. This allows me to be very meticulous when I am filming.” Some of the locations, like the church featured in the Tacloban footage, he finds by coincidence.

CNN in Tacloban, November 18th

Video footage can be found here.

This report, shot ten days after the typhoon hit the Philippines, features presenter/journalist Karl Penhaul standing amidst the debris as a drone is flown over him. As the drone continues its “fly-by” (accompanied by its own whizzing sound), it does not only capture the devastation, but also shows rescue workers and dogs making their way through what was once Tacloban City’s main street. “The pictures speak clearly for themselves”, says Penhaul of the awful scale of the disaster.

Another CNN video from Tacloban – now a “city of ghosts”- features more panoramic, 360 degrees images of the destruction on the island.

The images of the destruction left behind by Haiyan are more less the same in the footage produced by CNN and the NOS. One clear difference, however, is the presence of the presenter Penhaul in the CNN coverage. NOS camera man Feijten: “We didn’t film anything like that, but I also didn’t feel that having the presenter in the shot would add anything to the images I had already made with the drone.”

So how has the availability of this technology changed the coverage of a disaster like Haiyan?

With the drones’ maneuverability and remote piloting, it becomes possible to see the disaster site from a viewpoint that is somewhat beyond eye-height, thus creating a feel for the scale of the destruction, and high bird’s eye views, thereby still creating a notion of proximity  in that the viewer feels like they are “in” the area. This issue of scale has been widely acclaimed over Twitter and in articles over the past couple of days, as the drone coverage makes it possible for journalists and audiences worldwide to acquire a different understanding and oversight of the huge impact of the typhoon.

Eric Feijten: “You can’t go below 300 m with a regular helicopter. The flycam allows me to go “into” that space: I can shoot footage from eye height to 400 m, actually filming or following people, which means that the footage is literally “close” to you.

The drones allow journalists – those who are trained in the flying of the devices – to act rather independently when they are looking to provide images of difficult terrain. The bird’s eye view in itself is no new phenomenon in media coverage of dynamic or crisis situations; however, with the use of drones, journalists no longer have to be taken along with helicopters or aeroplanes provided by the authorities. Another drone-savvy British photographer, Lewis Whyld stated to the The New York Times that he took up the fly-cam so as not to disturb the aid organizations or take up any space in the aid-delivery helicopters. (At the Frontline Club event, Civil Aviation Authority representative Garry Corbett also spoke of a real danger of interference of journalistic drones with authorities’ aerial tools to get information in crisis situations.) In fact, his involvement had an surprising effect as the drone shot images of two bodies/victims buried in the debris that had not previously been detected by the rescue workers. CNN has also used some of his footage.

Both NOS and CNN still use the helicopters and it is unlikely that news corporations will abolish this practice completely now that the drone technology is becoming more mainstream – not in the least because the delivery of aid (and especially the complications of actually delivering the aid on the islands that have been all but swept away) are a major theme in the coverage. What is more, the helicopters fly faster and further which in some cases can be desirable for the story-telling. The drones only add more options to storytelling. One major problem with helicopters is that they cannot go lower than 300 meters, and they produce a lot more blowback on the ground, whereas drones are much more subtle and can even be used – issues of privacy notwithstanding – to follow about people. When it comes to bringing people to the screen, the drones can be used in different kinds of approaches; to situate the presenter or journalist within the scene, or to portray the activities of victims and aid workers on the ground.

Although this new technology provides new angles to the telling of news stories, the approach taken by many of the journalists curating these images has not been very different from the other, “traditional” coverage. Arriving shortly after the super typhoon hit the Philippines, the reporting teams have all more or less focused on Leyte, the most severely hit island; and there, they were all based in the urban centres of Tacloban city or Ormoc. The rural areas between these two cities were of course rather inaccessible, and working in a disaster zone – where there is hardly any electricity – is hard enough. The most intensive media coverage has occurred during the first two weeks after Haiyan/Yolanda, and by now, many of the journalists have moved away again. This fluctuation of attention is simply part of the journalistic “ecosystem” that forms around such disaster zones – but indeed, it would be very interesting for these flying cameras to go back in a couple of months or in a year’s time, to once again record what traces the typhoon left behind.

About the Author:

Lisa Dupuy was previously an intern at the EJC Emergency Journalism Project. She is now an MA student at King’s College Department of War Studies. She is interested in international conflict and journalism. You can contact her via Twitter.

Photo: Mike Miley

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