Later this week, I will be sitting on a panel at an Ethics Symposium at CU-Boulder. Here is an excerpt of what I wrote in preparation for our conversation:
Despite the powerful journalistic affordances of the Twitter and the glut of information it may contain, there are obvious reasons to question the network’s effectiveness of sorting out fact from fiction. The ‘wisdom of the crowd’ may not always be the best guide. By the same token, one must be careful not to rely too heavily upon the first wave of information coming from the mainstream media. As Anthony De Rosa pointed out earlier this week, “Twitter isn’t the problem. You are.” De Rosa’s point is that “process reporting”—the sharing of information as it comes in, prior to verification, and then correcting the record later—is irresponsible journalism. This is especially true in breaking news situations, where adrenaline is pumping the race to be firs—or, as De Rosa suggests, second—often gets in the way of what is otherwise a methodical process of gathering, verifying, and distributing information. As NPR Counterterrorism Correspondent Dina Temple-Raston put it, “the first information that you get is usually wrong….It took us [NPR] half an hour to figure out that there were two explosions, and that, in fact, they had been bombs” (2013). NPR’s verification process utilized a broad array of sources, found through both traditional and new channels.
As Adam Popescu once tweeted, “real reporting can be done via #Twitter. But not all of it.” Similarly, we are reminded that real reporting can be done by journalists, but not all of it. For example, this data visualization of tweets and retweets in the first hour after the 2011 Japan earthquake demonstrates how influential citizens can be in publishing and curating information in real-time. Of course, posting breaking information—on Twitter or elsewhere—is not the same thing as “traditional” journalism, which contains verified, contextualized (and, ideally, actionable) knowledge that is often the product of “gumshoe reporting.” Doing this kind of important yet painstaking works takes time and capital, and not just the economic kind.
Still, news consumers now have the option to ‘crash the gates’ and go straight to the source. And it’s not just average citizens who are now more accessible. Official sources are now an increasingly important part of the publishing cycle. For example, Colorado’s Jefferson County Sherriff’s office utilized employed a thorough social media strategy during the September, 2013 floods. Similarly, when the search for the Boston Marathon bombing suspect was over, Twitter users were among the first to know about it. And the tweet came straight from an official source: the Boston Police Department. Their post was retweeted nearly 140,000 times and received nearly 47,000 favorites. It read:
CAPTURED!!! The hunt is over. The search is done. The terror is over. And justice has won. Suspect in custody (Boston Police Department, 2013).
Drones and Disasters
When it comes to disaster coverage, drones provide obvious benefits. They can safely go where humans cannot, and can capture revealing (if more pixelated) images at a fraction of the cost it would take to send a full-size helicopter, camera, and reporting team. These affordances alone explain why drones may be the next frontier for disaster coverage. But, they are not without limitations.
I think the biggest issue is controlling the rare access to information about private life. The monopoly over this right is held by the State and many cooperative communication corporations (Facebook, Google, Comcast, the telecomms, etc.). Do they really want another, possibly combative, industry to have comparable access rights? It doesn’t appear so, as the regulatory process has sought to ban all “commercial” drone usage. As Lowy points out, “The FAA has identified the dividing line between a model aircraft and a small drone as more one of intent, rather than of technology. If it is used for commercial purposes, it's a drone. If it's used purely for recreational purposes, it's a model aircraft.” However, the tides appear to be turning, as a recent federal judge dismissed the Federal Aviation Administration’s (FAA) $10,000 fine against an aerial photographer on the grounds that “the small drone was no different than a model aircraft” (Lowy). The issue is far from settled, but this ruling paves the way for the “commercial” usage of drones, including journalism.
While there may be few ethical concerns about using drones to cover disasters—especially “natural” ones—the issue gets much thornier when people come into the equation. While the NSA now has a massive spying program built around 4th Amendment loopholes like the Patriot Act, average citizens are unlikely to be granted the right to fly and spy. Americans’ right to privacy is surely eroding, but it’s far from gone. For example, current techniques for recording in public require the use of “manned” (i.e. handheld) cameras. Thus, private life may become public, but some form of physical copresence is usually required.
Consider, for a second, what journalism and public space would be like if video-drones use became normalized. Would there be a sea of drones over Bieber’s mansion? How about flying around Boston and Watertown for days as the manhunt continued? The outcome would be even more ominous if “commercial use” included applications like Amazon’s drone delivery program. It’s obvious why the FAA is concerned about regulating drone usage. It’s also pretty clear why they’re an ethical concern for the journalism world: technological innovations have broadened journalistic toolkits, but merely possessing a tool does not dictate if or how we should use it.
This leads me to another concern about access to information and ‘convenience journalism’. As budgets get tighter and profit margins greater, and journalists are asked to ‘do more with less’, there may be even greater pressure for news teams to pick the ‘low hanging fruit’. (Citizen-run, celebrity-chasing, voyeur drones, anyone?) This kind of solutionism may be fine in certain circumstances, but the widespread implications may be more troublesome for those of us still clinging to the profession’s unwavering dedication to serving the public good. It’s much easier to print what’s coming off the wire, to air that video news release, or to stream a live-feed from an octocopter hovering over next month’s 4/20 celebration. But, what’s best and what’s easiest are rarely the same thing.
Given the instances of erroneous reporting by both citizen- and professional- journalists, I seek a departure from the endless cycle of mud-slinging at those actors (often non-professionals) charged of mucking up the journalistic process by publishing or publicizing unverified information. Besides, “professional” journalism is often the primary culprit, anyway (see Sohmer and De Rosa). Instead, we should ensure that journalistic practice remains in touch with journalistic values.
On a more abstract level, we might also ask, as medium theorists might, how certain communicative platforms help make some outcomes more likely than others. This would be a question of technological and communicative affordances and how they are leveraged in pursuit of particular goals. In other words, what tools are best for best for this particular job? Ideally, we could avoid situations where “the only tool you have is a hammer,” and “everything looks like a nail.” Inevitably, some people will keep pounding away until others come along and make us stop.
The same approach applies to the drone phenomenon. As the recent court ruling shows, the question is not so much if, drones will be used, but who will be allowed to use them, when, and to what ends? So, as drones start becoming part of the journalistic toolkit, we must keep in mind the goals and values of the profession, and be mindful of when and how we use them. If they’re abused great harm might be done, and a great privilege could be lost.