JOURNALISM, DRONES AND CANADA. CAN WE FLY TOGETHER?
This is an interview with Jeff Ducharme, he is a journalism instructor at the College of the North Atlantic in Newfoundland and Labrador. The college was the first in Canada to add drone journalism to its curriculum.
This is Part 2 of a series on drone journalism on Water Today
our first was with University of Nebraska-Lincoln professor Matthew Waite who gave us the United States viewpoint and recommended we speak with Jeff for a Canadian perspective on teaching drone journalism. Water Today spoke with Ducharme over the phone, here is a transcript of that conversation.
This series is brought to you in part by Aerobotika - UAV training and Consulting
Water Today - I'm looking at your drone journalism code and one of clauses states that ‘a drone is a powerful tool. It must be treated as such. Drones should only be used to gather information pertinent to a given a story. Drones should not be used to search for stories’. By your logic then, if a reporter has a drone and suspects that people are dumping toxic chemicals over there, but is not sure, would it mean from your point of view, that you have to have that story more or less nailed before you get a drone involved. Is that what this means?
Ducharme - No I wouldn't say that at all. The greatest fear that the general public has about drones is based on privacy and one of the concerns that I keep hearing about over and over again is people thinking that the skies will be filled with all these drones from all these media outlets looking for stories. In other words I come in at 9:00 o'clock in the morning, I go get a drone and I start flying around the city looking for stories; whether that be a car accident , a guy selling dope in his back yard, somebody burning trash illegally, whatever.
And the point of that clause being
included in a drone code of conduct is that you are not to use drones to search for stories. In other words, you don’t come in at 9 o’clock, launch a drone and see if you can find stories. But the scenario you mentioned is perfectly acceptable because, although I don’t know for sure, I have a feeling that there is a contaminated link on the other side of that hill, and I do know that a drone would be the perfect tool to fly over that hill to see whether the lake is polluted or if there is an illegal dumping site there, whatever it happens to be. So there is a slight difference there. When I say that people go looking for stories, I mean that you don't even have a story; it's like if you are a news photographer and the editor looks at you and says, we’ve got no assignments for you right now, just go and look for photos. That's what I'm talking about.
Water Today - Okay, what you are saying is that a drone should not be used essentially to troll and hopefully you run into something. And there is a big difference here, I'm glad you clarified that.
Ducharme - Yeah, and that's what is unacceptable; trolling for stories. That's unacceptable and it's a privacy issue, which is the reason I put it in there because people have that concern, right. They are concerned that, every time a police department flies a drone, they are going to look up and see the police drone flying overhead. In fact, most police departments who fly drones, they don't buy them for those types of investigations; they buy them for accident reconstruction. They are accident reconstruction tools. Drones are incredible, I mean they are so good at it, they are so quick.
Water Today - Being an environmental reporter I have very little on- the-ground knowledge of how someone would reconstruct an accident. How come drones are so useful in that field?
Ducharme - Well normally what these guys would do is work from the ground with cameras, tape measures, and various surveying stations and that kind of stuff. And they would take all these measurements.
Water Today - I've seen them.
Ducharme - Now what they are doing with the drone, is that they fly it 200/300 feet in the air, and the drone shoots straight down, and it gives them the whole picture of the accident and records all that information. So all the information that they were gathering with lasers and tape measures , a drone can do with two or three pictures. Drones can see how the road is going, where the vehicle is in relation to the skid marks, and it's all right there captured either on video or still images. When it's being investigated and eventually ends up in court, you can't underestimate the value of these images. So it makes for a much quicker investigation. Whereas it would normally take three hours to do, now it takes half an hour or an hour to do.
Same thing on the crime scene, if you are on the crime scene and you’re on the ground, you’re walking around looking for footprints, and you are looking for pieces of evidence, you launch a drone or fly a drone up 200 feet looking down on the crime scene, you can see all the footprints, you can see all the tire tracks, you can see things on the ground. And when it gets to court, and you have these images, and you have these videos that can be presented to the court, it's pretty powerful evidence.
Water Today - Have you ever heard of what I talked about with one operator this morning? This man's name is Allan and he runs a drone company out of Winnipeg, and what he seemed really concerned about is that there are good guys and bad guys in terms of journalism. He'd been asked by media in Winnipeg to get shots of flood zones, and he was fine with that kind of thing but where he thinks the nightmare begins is the paparazzi idea of these things, where they are not going to be following journalist standards. And the fact is, the bigger the story, the more motivated people would be to break the rules and regulations. Do you see that as something you have to teach the up and coming journalists, that with regards to paparazzi, they may be at a disadvantage, because they follow the rules and the paparazzi don't.
Ducharme- I understand what you are saying. There are a bunch of different groups here and we should probably separate those first of all. You have commercial operators which would be the media outlets, and then you have responsible recreational fliers, the model aeroplane guys; they are the responsible hobby fliers out there. And then you have what we call the out-of-the box fliers. These are the guys who walk into a local hobby shop with $1500 in their pockets and say I want to buy a drone. They take the drone out of the box, they look at the quick start guide, they start the drone and they start flying it. They have no idea about any regulations, they don't care. These are the guys that end up going and taking videos at the airport, and causing near misses with planes. They’re not the only ones, there are some rogue operators too, but I mean to a large extent, it’s the out-of-the-box guys.
These are guys who go to the ski hills and fly over people skiing. But beyond people getting hurt what I see as the biggest issue for us, the commercial operators, and the responsible operators, is that the public makes no distinctions. Even in traditional media, the public makes no distinction between the news photographer, a photo- journalist and paparazzi. They’ve got a camera, you’ve got a camera, you are taking pictures for people for the news, and they are taking pictures of people for the news. There is no distinction.
Water Today - I agree with this.
Ducharme - So the challenge is there’s little we can do with the You Tube heroes. These are the guys whose self-value is determined by whether a video goes viral or not. And they are willing to do some pretty stupid things to see it go viral. For instance there was a couple of guys in Constance Bay which is a cottage community just outside of Ottawa, and I think it was at the end of last Winter - there was still snow, and there was still ice on the river - they decided that the thing to do was to take Roman candles, tie them to the skid of the drone, and chase their friends across the ice while these Roman candles shot balls of fire at them. They thought that, that was the thing to do. Transport Canada actually went and investigated them, now I haven't heard of any charges being laid but there was an investigation underway. You can find that video online. Just search Roman candle drones, it will come up. And the driving force for these people; what I believe to be the driving force for these people is that their video will go viral. But they are putting people's lives at risk, they are putting their own lives at risk, and they are putting other people's lives at risk.
Some of these drones for instance, fly at 15 meters per second; that is an aggressive flying machine. These are not toys, and so these You Tube heroes, these people looking for hits on Facebook and the videos going viral on You Tube, they are the biggest threat to drone journalism because the public does not make a distinction between the two. You got a drone, you are flying this thing that has a camera on it, and you’re all the same. And that's our challenge. It's also a challenge for the regulatory agencies out there. I think the demand is fuelling deregulation which is all well and good for the responsible operators, but there needs to be some kind of enforcement whether, it is criminal or whether it be through Transport Canada. And maybe if there’s fine issued, maybe that will change the mind-set. Because most of these people, these You Tube heroes have no idea that one of the Transport Canada regulations is that you have to be 9 kilometres away from an airport, and that you can't fly over crowds.
Water Today - So you think it's a matter of more education, and then on the other side of that, more enforcement. When I talked to Transport Canada, at least my source there, she was pretty clear that Transport Canada really has no ability to enforce anything but the most obvious breaches. Unless you have huge incidents like the kids in Constance Bay, or some guy that flew it at an airport, and got the airport shut down. Not only do we never hear about it, but I agree the public doesn't make a distinction between what is legal and safe and what isn't.
Ducharme - We have to be realistic too, I mean Transport Canada has a finite amount of resources. Right now with the drones the demand for SFOC Special flight operation certificates which commercial operators have to have, unless they fit into the two exemption categories. The demand is so huge; their resources are stretched to the limit. They can only go after the most egregious cases.
Water Today - I know a bit about the Constance Bay situation, and my understanding is that there are fines, either there already or in the mail. But I don't see how you reassure your students or what do you say to them when they say they don’t stand a chance against the paparazzi. Do you just go, well be patient, believe in your craft and good luck?
Ducharme -Well first thing is, I would hope that my students are not covering the same stories as the paparazzi are.
Water Today - Well I know the junk circuit. My issue though, I could see using a drone, or at least hiring an operator to use their drone to go catch dumpers and to find enforcement stories. But you don't really want to go hey, we’re taking a video of you guys dumping. Does the right to a story trump the right to privacy, or how do you see that playing out?
Ducharme - Well, if you are breaking the law, you know, what rights to privacy do you actually have? But if you are breaking the law; if there is somebody out there illegally dumping - which I can understand from what you guys do is of major concern - I don't see how they could have an expectation of privacy. Now that being said, you can't fly over private property. It's the same rules as trespassing. If you are a commercial operator you need permission from the property owner before you fly over their property. On the other hand, I don't have to go on your property to shoot that video. I can fly maximum 400 feet in the air. I could go up 400 feet in the air according to Transport Canada regulations. When I'm 400 feet up in the air, I can be on my property or I can be on public property and still see what's going on in that private property. Do you understand what I mean?
Water Today - Yeah, one the operators I talked to this morning, the fellow from Winnipeg, told me that if you are not standing on the guy's property, as in my feet are in your backyard, there is no trespassing. And what he was suggesting is that if I'm over 200 feet I can fly over your property.
Ducharme - Is that's what he is suggesting?
Water Today - That's what he is suggesting, and I'm not lawyer. So the first I heard of that, I was thinking that this violates the privacy law.
Ducharme - I would check that with Transport Canada .
Water Today - I agree.
Ducharme - But I guess the first thing you have to ask yourself is ‘why am I trespassing in the first place’? Is the story that I'm going after, that important that I'm willing to take that risk? It doesn't matter if you’re on foot or on a drone or whatever. I mean reporters face that question all the time.
At the end of the day, drones are game changers. I'm sure you’re aware of this as a journalist - and myself working for news outlets that didn't have large financial resources - when something happens, whether it be a train derailment, or a plane downed in the wilderness, often the best we can do is either try to sneak through the woods and get to it, or be stuck wherever the police roadblocks are. While bigger news agencies like CBC can rent a helicopter for a thousand dollars an hour, and fly that helicopter over the site and get footage, get a better grasp of what the story was. Well now drones allow you to do the same thing. Drones now give that capability to news outlet regardless of the size. Because at the end of the day, you can buy one for a $1000, not to mention that these drones pay for themselves in one helicopter ride.
Water Today - I can see that...
Ducharme - So these things can be up there. So the whole thing is, we are going to see this develop, and as far as drone journalism goes it’s still in its infancy.
Water Today - For sure, I agree with that
For so long now, all we've done is teach just the basics in journalism schools; we teach the 5 Ws, we teach the CP style, we teach photo-journalism, we teach the cannons of journalism; we teach laws and ethics. It’s the cornerstone stuff, the iron clad stuff that you need to know as a journalist, and it’s incredibly important. But at the same time we should explore new technologies, not for any other reasons, than we should just explore them.
What I find has been happening in journalism schools over the years is that, industry comes across something and start using it, and then once it has been used for a few years in the commercial world, journalism schools realize they need to teach it. I think it should be the other way around, I don't think we should respond to change; I think we should lead the change. Rather than riding a wave, let's make the wave. And it's not just drone journalism, maybe virtual or immersive journalism, whatever you want to call it. Like the New York Times, Walking New York for example are incredibly engaging.
Water Today - Neat stuff.
Ducharme - It is, it's really neat stuff. It basically comes down to what we can give our readers or viewers that will make a good story epic.
So I just think it's a progression, and while none of these things are journalism, they add to journalism. They make stories better, they make video pieces better. Beyond that, drones are also an amazing tool to collect or verify data.
Water Today - I can see needing that.
Ducharme - Yeah, you can gather your own data. Here’s an example that’s close to what Water Today is looking to doing. I think it was Matt Waite’s class, who did a piece on a drought. One of the things they did was take a test tube tie it to the bottom of the drone, and then they went out in the middle of the body of water, collected a sample of water and brought it back. So as opposed to getting a sample by the shore which could be exaggerated or contaminated, you can actually go out and get samples in this body of water from a dozen different points; in the middle, on the other side of the shore, one end, the other end, and all of a sudden your data becomes that much more concrete.
Water Today - What about search and rescue. Do you see drones helping in that context?
Ducharme - I think search and rescue is one of the areas where drones can be most effective, using flares, those types of things. Dropping down survival packs to hikers until rescue gets there. Actually, the first life ever saved in a search and rescue by a drone was in Saskatchewan and the drone that was used to rescue this gentleman is now at the Smithsonian in Washington.
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