Is drone journalism for real?

One summer when I was reporting for Newsday‘s (now defunct) New York City edition I was assigned a story about a power outage at a public housing project in the Far Rockaways; we had heard rumors that the property managers had done little to solve the problem. The city was in the midst of a stifling heat wave, and as the week wore on the project’s residents–particularly the elderly–were struggling to survive. (If you live on food stamps, for example, and the food in your fridge goes bad, you don’t have the resources to replace it.)

When I arrived on the scene with a photographer we faced a gated entrance: There was no way the guards would let us through to do interviews. But we went around the side of the property, found  a backdoor gate, and slipped inside with help from an exiting resident. In the plaza areas of the complex residents were gathered on folding chairs, fanning themselves and eager to talk. Night had already started to fall, and I remember how dark and foreboding the powerless buildings seemed, black shadows towering above us.

Security eventually discovered that we were on the property, but we made a run for it and got back to our car.

When I think back on that night, it’s easy to think that footage from a drone would have made the resulting story all the more compelling. Indeed, from a legal standpoint, it might have offered the proof that housing advocates needed in order to compel the absent property managers to take action. But at the same time, capturing the stories of the residents on paper achieved much the same purpose: Their words, on the record, carried weight.

So is drone journalism for real? Yes and no. It’s another tool in the journalist’s toolkit, and in countries with limited media freedoms I imagine that it will continue to be quite a powerful tool. In countries like the U.S., I’m most interested in drones’ ability to help with enterprise reporting, rather than breaking news. How is post-Sandy reconstruction progressing, for example? The government is spending billions on new homes and flooding systems–have those dollars resulted in the homes and solutions that were promised? I’d love to take a drone along the coastline and find out.