If 2017 seemed like it was the year every newsroom had its own flying drone, University of Nebraska journalism professor Matt Waite says it wasn’t without a lot of work behind the scenes.
“You had this confluence of news organizations that had been building drone programs inside their operations,” says Waite, who teaches reporting and digital product development as part of Nebraska’s College of Journalism and Mass Communications. “They had journalists who were now licensed drone pilots. They had the platforms. They had the training.”
Other factors like the FAA adopting new rules of engagement and news stories that took advantage of drones’ ability to tell a story with size and scope – particularly hurricanes – brought them into wider use.
As with any new tool capable of scale, the possibility exists for it to be abused. But since 2007, Waite’s been considering the best practices around journalism and technology. As a news technologist with the St. Petersburg Times, then as the developer of PolitiFact – a web platform for fact-checking the news – he’s been at the forefront of how digital tools can make the news better – and more honest.
Starting in 2011, Waite – a graduate of UN-L’s journalism program – began teaching digital journalism and later founded the university’s Drone Journalism Lab.
BTN LiveBIG talked with Waite about what the future of drone journalism looks like, why Nebraska is a good home for drones and why algorithms need non-techie humans more than ever.
WHY 2017 WAS THE YEAR OF THE DRONE
BTN LiveBIG: The first question I have is a basic one. How do drones improve the quality of journalism?
Matt Waite: Well, it’s when they’re used in a specific way, and that way is to provide context to an event, to show scale and scope. What drones do very, very well is convey how large something is. They provide a perspective that is difficult to get, if not impossible in many cases, and, in the process, open people’s minds to the enormity of a thing, and you saw that a lot during Hurricanes Harvey, Irma, and Maria. Drones had their coming-out party in those hurricanes.
BTN LiveBIG: Are there other breaking news situations where drones can be more useful now that FAA clearances are happening faster and people are clear about how to use drones safely?
Waite: You’re seeing a lot of movement in that direction, and what I have been saying for awhile is when this day comes, when it is fully game-on, everybody’s happy, I worry that newsrooms will think, “We’ve got a new hammer. Now everything’s a nail,” and there will be a drone shot of everything. Every farmer’s market and 5K road race and ribbon cutting and park remodel. We’ll all have a drone shot and it’s going to become visual furniture. You’re not even going to notice it anymore.
I feel like we have to go through that stage. There has to be that point where we’re like, “Oh, great. Here’s another drone shot. It’s just cliched,” for us to get on the other side of the coin here, which is when we get to more creative applications of the technology.
BTN LiveBIG: What does the innovative use of drones end up looking like beyond just, “Okay, wow, I can definitely see how big this crowd is”?
Waite: I think you’re going to see them used in investigative journalism soon. You’re going to see them used in ways that are not just taking photographs, but creating data. You’re using multi-spectral cameras to monitor environmental change, or the effects of land use decisions. You’re using drones to image an area and turn it into data models.
I think you can also use that same method of creating three-dimensional models for creating virtual reality experiences. So taking a drone to a town in the Midwest after a tornado has gone through and wiped it out, you can fly over it in a pattern over and over and over again to build photorealistic three-dimensional models of it and put those into virtual reality experiences.
BTN LiveBIG: Is there something about Nebraska that makes it a good place to develop innovative use of drones?
Waite: I think it’s just we have this collection of curious people who see the benefits of having a flying robot for a lot of different things.
I think the other benefit that we have here is that we’re in a low population state. We’re in a rural state that has just an unfathomable amount of open space, where there’s no air traffic.
BTN LiveBIG: How do you develop a college curriculum that can still keep up with rapid technological change?
Waite: You cheat. [Laughs] That’s the best way I can say. The truth of it is I have fought against the notion of having a drone class because we wouldn’t teach a class in “phone.”
What I have been doing is trying to create what we call special topics classes, which are not permanent parts of the curriculum. We can spin them up fairly quickly. They go in as electives for students, and then roll drones into those special topics courses.
THE FUTURE OF NEWS
BTN LiveBIG: Let me ask you about an essay you wrote for Nieman Lab at the end of last year. You predicted that none of the problems we were seeing at the end of last year would get fixed this year. Did you see any progress on some of the things that you cited?
Waite: Not a lot. No.
I think that’s indicative of the mindset of most newsrooms in terms of picking stories in terms of who works on those stories, who is the person writing them? There’s a real mindset problem there and it’s subtle and difficult.
The number of perspectives, the number of people who see the world differently, there’s not a lot of them, and no, I didn’t see a lot of broad improvement on that.
Certain organizations made good hires, and certain people rose in the ranks, and that’s a positive, but they’re small steps in a very large industry that is having real problems with getting audiences to trust it.
BTN LiveBIG: What does journalism need more of right now?
Waite: I can talk about this one all day long. I’ll give you the same pitch that I give to prospective students who come in the door here. If you are coming here because you want to work at a newspaper, emphasis on the paper, and you want a steady nine to five job where you can retire with a gold watch in 40 years, then you’re in the wrong place.
If you have a burning curiosity in your gut, in your soul, if you have a sense of adventure, if you have an entrepreneurial bent, if you are unafraid of failure, then there has never been a better time to be a journalist. There’s never been a better time to be in journalism because things are in such flux and how it’s all going to work out is a mystery. I tell students here all the time, you’re the generation that’s going to be the one to build it because all the old stuff’s falling apart, and the need for journalism, the need for trustworthy information, accurate, fact-based information has never been higher.
HUMANS > ALGORITHMS
BTN LiveBIG: At PolitiFact, you used technological tools to improve news content. It seems like we’re at a point where technology is outpacing humans’ ability to fact-check the news. Is another technological antidote possible or is this an area where human beings are the best defense?
Waite: I don’t think they’re mutually exclusive. I’m still pretty convinced that there’s no algorithm for humanity, and that, at the end of the day, the scope of human complexity and emotional complexity and political complexity is going to require human beings to be a part of the loop.
Facebook and Google and a lot of people are finding that your algorithms are only as unbiased as the humans that make them, and so the assumptions that go into these algorithms matter, and they have profound impact, and if there aren’t human beings that can look at them and audit them and figure out how they’re working and how they’re not working, and whether or not it made the right call, I think you’re just setting yourself up for disaster.
BTN LiveBIG: So we need to be focused on thinking more like human beings when we’re developing these algorithms, both in a positive and a negative way.
Waite: Which is why you’re seeing a lot of tech companies hiring liberal arts students. They’re hiring grad students out of the humanities. They’re looking at research going on in digital humanities and trying to take that and slide it over into these problems, because yeah, I think that is precisely it, is engineering thinking in a humanistic problem domain, and you’re getting what you get, and it’s not ideal.
I think this is sort of the arms race of our time.
This interview has been condensed and edited.
Photo: Craig Chandler, University of Nebraska