By now, you’ve probably seen the pictures: New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, surrounded by his family and friends, sitting on a public beach that had been closed to the public amidst a state government shutdown.

In a write-up for the (Newark, New Jersey) Star-Ledger, which published the photos, photographer Andrew Mills described how he caught the governor by acting on a hunch and booking a private plane to take him along the Jersey shoreline.

His hunch paid off: Christie became the No. 1 trending topic on Twitter, #beachgate quickly became fodder for meme crafters and congratulatory messages from other journalists poured in.

Mills’ photos give us the opportunity to think about how journalists can use photographs and videos taken from above — whether by helicopter, plane or drone — in really creative ways to break news and tell stories. How does shooting from above help the audience? How does it help tell a more nuanced story? And what kinds of stories can local newsrooms tell with these shots beyond tracking traffic, animals escaping, or the latest local fire?

Aerial shots — like the ones Mills took or the ones taken by drone operators — give you "the ability to offer perspective on a thing,” says Matt Waite, a Professor of Practice at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln who started the Drone Journalism Lab and (full disclosure) sometimes teaches drone workshops for The Poynter Institute. “I have described drones as purpose-built context machines. They are designed to put things into perspective for audiences especially anything that involves large spatial topics.”

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That could be a storm, or a drought, or a governor in New Jersey, surrounded by empty stretches of beach.

But overhead shots also require some creativity on the part of newsrooms. Helicopters are expensive, renting planes often requires advance notice, and drones — while cheaper — are often restricted in where they can fly, as Will McDonald, a digital producer at the Yakima Herald-Republic, recently pointed out.

Drones are also viewed cautiously by the public. A white paper released last month by the Center for Journalism Ethics at the University of Wisconsin-Madison reported on how public support varies for drones used in journalism depending on the story type. Certain topics — fires, environmental changes over time, weather events — were seen as palatable. Others — celebrity events, live events, and “impropriety by well-known figures, such as an extramarital affair involving a politician” were viewed more negatively by survey participants.

I reached out to Matt Waite as well as Ben Kreimer, an advisor to the Drone Journalism Lab and a frequent collaborator with newsrooms on drone projects, to learn more about ways that journalism organizations can use overhead shots to tell stories in creative ways, push boundaries and help their audiences contextualize news stories at scale.

The white paper released by the Center for Journalism Ethics at the University of Wisconsin-Madison last month mentioned that some stories using drones — such as environmental stories and weather stories — are more palatable to the public than stories that involve celebrities, or “impropriety by well-known figures.” How do you bring public along as you push boundaries of this medium?

Kreimer: I’ll start by saying that a lot of the projects I’ve personally done have been environmental stories, and I haven’t done anything that has exposed a person or people. The closest that my work’s gone near that was when I covered a political rally in Nairobi, but that event had thousands of people out in public at this rally and there was no expectation of privacy. The media was there, and there were other photographers there as well.

The privacy issue and people being concerned about privacy makes sense to me. And it makes sense that people are more comfortable with drones taking images or video of the environment and less with taking images of people. There are a lot of concerns with drones and spying.

That report actually gave me confidence because people and their views on drones have evolved so they have a nuanced perspective. It’s not people saying all drones are bad. There are certain contexts where it people are more comfortable. And that, for me, is progress.

At the same time, there have been serious ethical lapses by journalists using drones. During the 2015 earthquake in Nepal, the foreign media descended on Katmandu and they had drones up in the air, and because of how journalists were operating there, there were numerous instances of Nepali citizens’ privacy being invaded.

The drones were flown with little regard for people there. And after that, Nepal basically banned drones outright and said no one can fly drones in Nepal. And Nepal had been an oasis for drones but because of the way foreigners came in and flew drones after the earthquake, that changed very quickly.

Waite: People are much more comfortable with drones on issues versus anything that might be construed as spying. Even though you can do the same thing with a manned aircraft, people are generally uncomfortable with people using a drone with anything that could be construed as spying.

What’s interesting in that report is not so much the responses — because they’re somewhat predictable — but the standard errors, which indicated when there were highest amounts of disagreement among the survey participants.

The widest range of scores were on issues like crime, the celebrity stories and catching politicians doing improper things — there is some support there, but it’s more fractured than the support for environmental stories. My sense is that that’s driven by this notion of spying. People are genuinely uncomfortable.

If you take that report very seriously, then you have to start there when you look at investigative reporting. If you're trying to catch the mayor cheating on his wife in his backyard with a drone, then people are going to respond to that negatively and people are going to be genuinely uncomfortable with that approach.

How is the Christie story different for audiences?

Waite: It’s different is that it’s not salacious. It’s hypocrisy. If there’s one thing that cuts across partisan lines, it’s that people do not like hypocrites. It’s much easier to see the story here and there’s much less of a feeling of spying because he was on a public beach. He was in the middle of a public beach — he wasn’t even trying to hide.

It falls in a really unique crack in that survey line. If a drone caught Chris Christie walking with a mistress, I think the reaction would have been different than if Chris closed a beach after a budget fight, and then was sitting on that beach with his family. The hypocrisy is breathtaking, and it’s much easier for the audience to see the value. They could have done it with a weather balloon, and I think it would have been OK with the public.

Could journalists have used a drone instead of a plane to capture the Chris Christie photos?

Kreimer: Regarding the Christie photos, in that specific instance, it would have been very difficult to fly a drone to capture that shot because:

  • Drones are not allowed to be flown in state parks in New Jersey.
  • Unless you have a waiver that says otherwise, drones have to be kept within line-of-sight. Because Island Beach State Park is very long and narrow (I've been there in the past, when it was open!) you technically could fly from outside the park, and fly around its boundary over the water, but that would also be a big challenge because the state park extends into the water, but it's not clear how far. Also, your drone would need a telephoto lens, and the vast majority of drones do not have one. Even if you did have such a lens, odds are your drone would be beyond visual line-of-sight.

Drones are much cheaper than planes — but it sounds like you have to think about whether a drone works for the particular story you want to tell.

Kreimer: That’s right. A lot of this comes down to the regulations and how those regulations connect to the story that you happen to be doing. In the case of the Chris Christie photos, the plane was flown at something like 1,000 feet. But there are regulations that state that drones can only be flown up to 400 feet. So you couldn’t have flown at the altitude of the plane in that story.

Yes, they are cheaper, but you have to then make sure the regulations line up. That currently creates some challenges which will likely get easier over time.

Right now, for instance, you can’t fly directly over people unless the people you are flying over are part of your drone operation — like the pilot or visual observers — unless you get a waiver. To get the waiver, you have to apply with the FAA 90 days in advance.

You can only freely fly a drone for commercial purposes (which includes journalists using photos or videos to use with a news story) if you have a remote pilot certificate, which the FAA outlines in this fact sheet. And if you have that certification – which means you’ve passed a test and are legally able to fly in the eyes of the FAA — then you’re also limited by airspace requirements.

There are rules about how close you can fly near an airport and how high you can go above the ground. And there are lots of airports in the country. You need a special waiver if you want to fly in Class B, C, D, or E airspace — which is basically describing areas of every city in the country. (You can see the waivers granted on the FAA website.)

So it sounds like you can’t really use drones for breaking news events, because they’re obviously not predictable in advance, and you need the 90-day waiver.

Kreimer: You can use them for breaking news events, but you have to be careful with how the regulations come into play. For example, the Part 107 rules say very explicitly that you can’t fly over people. But there’s likely some wiggle room there. If there’s a big event with a lot of people, you could rope off an area within that space or near that space and just fly straight up.

Flying over people is not clearly defined and how literal you want to take that is up to you. Our interpretation — and this gets discussed at Drone Journalism workshops — you can be in the area and just simply rope off a place where you can fly.

The FAA is actively engaging in research with the intent to remove or reduce restrictions about flying over people. My hope is that we will eventually be able to fly over people, but when that occurs, I don’t know.

I’ve seen a number of journalists remark that the use of a plane and aerial shots of Chris Christie was a really unique way to use overhead shots. Do you have ideas for other ways journalists could use shooting images or video from above, whether it’s with a drone, plane or something else entirely?

Waite: I think the first place you have to look is understanding that you have a camera that you can put in the air. That might seem really simple, but what does that offer you? That offers you the ability to offer perspective on a thing. I have described drones as purpose-built context machines. They are designed to put things into perspective for audiences — especially anything that involves large spatial topics.

The ability to get a camera even 100 feet into the air can change the perspective on scale and scope of a tornado or storm. It’s the same with hurricanes on The Atlantic coast. It’s really, really hard to explain to people in words what it looks like on the ground after hurricane-force winds come through. One photo from 100 feet in the air has the tremendous ability to put local events into context and perspective. So at the very least, you can do that. If there are visible and large-scale local events, you can put them into perspective. That’s easy to do.

Where it gets more interesting and something that is trivially simple to do computationally but is more difficult legally is mapping things with drones.

You can download multiple apps on your smart device that you plug into your drone, then you draw a rectangle around the space you want mapped, and the drone does the rest. It will stitch images together, and take an ultra resolution composite image of the ground in that area. And then you have the ability to take that map and layer property records or environmental records...so you can begin to do some really high impact investigative journalist.

I’ve said for years that the highest and best impact for drones will be in data journalism — using them with visible light cameras or multi-spectral cameras to gather data in near real time to do investigative journalism. The ability to map an area on demand is a tool that we haven’t even begun to think about yet.

Kreimer: I like to tell journalists that aerial shots are great for time lapse video. I worked on a journalism project to tell the story of a drought taking place in Nebraska. We did a time-lapse of the Platte River Basin using a drone. This is great for reporting stories with an investigative angle. You can send a drone up day after day to the same location and take a photo.

And then you can use drones to create 3-D reconstructions of landscapes. I’m taking photos with the drone and then using software to turn those into 3D environments for virtual reality storytelling.

Ben, you’ve been working with drones for five years and have often thought about how journalists can push the creative frontiers of the technology. How do you describe to journalists how they can use drones for their reporting work?

Kreimer: In certain ways it comes down to ways of using the drone — instead of flying over traffic or just flying high and looking below, a lot of the time I’m below 70 feet, so I’m actually pretty low to the ground. A lot of the most interesting drone shots are captured low to the ground. I always tell journalists to think of drones as replacement(s) for a boom or other camera moving mechanisms. They’re not a helicopter replacement because helicopters obviously can’t fly that low to the ground.

In workshops with journalists, I try to show some of my favorite shots which have been literally been shot a foot above the ground. Sometimes the drone starts lower than eye level and then it may rise up above eye level. I tell them that I’m simply using the drone as a way to creatively move a camera through space. It’s not the aerial perspective as much as a drone defies gravity — it can move nimbly, slowly, or majestically through rooms. It’s not just the high overhead — it’s the low overhead.

One other interesting way to use a drone when you’re reporting is to attach 360 video cameras to it. If you place the cameras in such a way so that you have a camera or cameras on bottom and top of drone, the drone disappears completely so then you have an invisible flying camera rig, so when it comes to VR storytelling, it’s a great platform for creating dynamic moving shots for that medium. This is my custom 360 drone:

Ben's custom 360 drone.
Ben's custom 360 drone.

Can you share a few examples from your work?

Kreimer: I did a project in Nairobi about people who picked trash from a landfill. It was a short video documentary for a reporter who at the time was working with Vice.

He basically wanted me to shoot aerial video of the landfill to get the large overhead shots. But some of the more interesting shots are of a guy picking through trash, and I flew the drone so you’re just above the guy and then the drone just shoots up in the air to about 300 feet so you get this enormous transition in the shot and that would have been literally impossible if not for the drone.

In another shot was there was a stream — but it was filled with putrid trash — and I used the drone flying 10 inches above the water to trace the entire stream. So essentially, I was flying below your knees but using the drone as a low-to-the-ground camera-moving mechanism.

I’ve also done a lot of work around wildlife conservation. In one case, one of the more memorable shots was when I flew around a giraffe’s head and the drone followed the giraffe’s head. Giraffes are maybe two stories high, and I was just rotating the drone and the camera around the head of the giraffe. I really could have only done that with the drone.

And here's a drone 360 video example from the California coast. More recently, I also flew my custom 360 video drone for a series of environmental stories about the Salton Sea in California. (You can see more videos here.) That project was a collaboration with the Desert Sun newspaper, and professor Robert Hernandez and students from USC. The 360/VR stories are also available on the USA Today VR stories app.

The white paper I mentioned earlier about drones in the newsroom mentioned that drones were deployed by commercial operators over Chapel Hill the night that UNC won the NCAA tournament. If I had roped off an area and sent a drone straight into the air, would that have been OK?

Kreimer: I’m afraid not. You can’t fly at night unless you have a light beacon on your drone that can be spotted from three miles away. So that’s a non-starter, but you could always apply for a waiver to fly after dark (but you likely wouldn’t be able to anticipate events like this.)

Working with drones sounds like it could save newsrooms money, but there’s also so much involved to ensure that you’re doing it within the regulations.

Waite: I have been asking my university to change my title from professor of practice to dream crusher. I get questions all the time from newsrooms about whether they can use a drone to do X and usually my answer is "nope."

I want to encourage to newsrooms to use these, but I have to be clear and honest with them that there are legal, ethical and regulatory challenges with drones that you don’t have with smartphones or photographers on the ground. They have to be very real about what they can do. I don’t want them to think this story they’ve dreamed of doing is going to be done when they go down to Best Buy and drop a grand on a drone.

You have to be very clear about what the rules are and be creative about how you can live within those rules. We run bootcamps that go over this: How do you fit creatively within the rules, within the ethical guidelines, within standards of basic safety? For some people, it’s too much. And that’s fine.

But I will make the argument that on most of these cases, there's a way to do what you want to do and still be able to sleep at night and know you kept to your ethical principles and the law.