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Taking Visual Journalism Into the Sky With Drones

How do New York Times journalists use technology in their jobs and in their personal lives? Josh Haner, a photographer for The Times, discussed the tech he’s using.

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Taking Visual Journalism Into the Sky With Drones
, New York Times
How do New York Times journalists use technology in their jobs and in their personal lives? Josh Haner, a photographer for The Times, discussed the tech he’s using.
Q: What are some of the new and interesting tools you are experimenting with for visual storytelling?

A: I’m constantly experimenting with the latest drones and 360/virtual reality camera systems. Every year, drones get smaller and their cameras get more advanced. In addition to improvements in image quality, I’m particularly interested in using drones for actual reporting — from counting houses that were damaged in a fire, to tracking plant health over time to help identify the impact of drought, to analyzing migration patterns and to identifying where peat fires burn underground.

We continue to improve on a piece of technology that I first developed in 2010 called our “remote streaming backpack.” It enables our photographers to send in their pictures in real time over multiple cellular modems without having to stop, open up a laptop, edit and send. This allows us to publish photos within seconds of when they were taken.

The first version that I built looked like a crude home invention, with electronics mounted to a piece of plywood that barely fit into a big camera backpack. Now the system fits in a fanny pack and looks much less homemade.

The next improvement will be adapting it to operate on the 5G cellular networks being built in the United States. Faster mobile bandwidth will allow us to get richer content from our journalists faster and will hopefully allow us to deploy this technology more widely for breaking news events.

Q: What are the most interesting things you’ve captured with drones that you never would have with old-fashioned photography?

A: Drones have democratized aerial imagery, as it no longer costs thousands of dollars to rent a helicopter or a plane to make images from above. I’m able to take a drone along with me to assignments in remote locations.

The first drone images I made were on a trip to Greenland’s ice sheet, where I captured images of a meltwater river flowing across the top of the ice. In Llapallapani, Bolivia, I used a drone to show that the second-largest lake in Bolivia had dried up, leaving boats stranded in the sand and a fishing community having to reinvent itself. More recently, I was able to get an aerial angle of the giant moai statues on Easter Island showing their proximity to an eroding coastline, which would not have been possible any other way.

Q: What are the main concerns about using drones?

A: The main concern with drones is safety. It’s imperative that people understand the laws in their country and in any country where they are considering using a drone. This is one of the most important parts of my job — applying for permission from international governments to safely use a drone in their airspace.

Beyond the official legal approval, which varies from country to country, many times I’m bringing a drone into a small community and I want to address potential ethical concerns. For example, in Bolivia, our journalists made multiple trips to a remote village to familiarize the community with the idea of what a drone is, and to get permission from the village leaders before bringing this new technology into their community.

There will always be people who abuse new technologies, but I believe that, as a community, journalists are doing a good job self-regulating. There are social media groups where we discuss issues and bring attention to good uses of the technology as well as potential concerns. Professional organizations like the National Press Photographers Association and the Poynter Institute have also come up with an excellent Drone Journalism Code of Ethics.

Drones may seem like toys, but if they are used without proper training and safeguards, they can very easily turn into a threat to air safety.

In addition to safety, people’s expectation of privacy is something we must consider. It is best to talk with anyone whose privacy you have the possibility of violating, before you fly and to think about what you are comfortable doing with your camera on the ground and extending that into the sky. Just because you can peer into someone’s backyard doesn’t mean you should.

Q: Outside work, what tech product are you currently obsessed with?

A: My wife and I recently purchased the Frame TV from Samsung. When I first saw it, I was fooled into thinking it was a framed photograph surrounded by a mat.

We now have it mounted flush on our wall, part of a gallery wall in our living room alongside art that we’ve collected over the years. When it’s not in use, it blends into the environment. Then there’s the “wow” moment when our friends ask where the TV is and we turn it on, and magically a framed photo turns into a live Warriors basketball game.

Our home and our space are very important to us, and this has allowed us to never feel like the TV is the center of attention.

I also love backpacking, sometimes alone and often to remote areas that in the past would make my family worried. Now, when I get to camp, I press a button on the DeLorme inReach Explorer Satellite Messenger to tell my wife and family that I’m OK. In addition, I can request the weather forecast for my location. When I’m 20 miles into the backcountry and it begins snowing, it is invaluable to be able to find out if the weather is going to improve or if I need to leave so I can get home safely before they close the roads. It’s an added safety net that lets me be more spontaneous when exploring.

Q: Technologists predict that text-based storytelling will soon be passé, and that videos and photos will be more important in journalism. What do you think?

A: As a society, we are more visually literate than ever before with the omnipresence of cellphone cameras and social media. Everyone is a photographer, and everyone is documenting his or her life in a way unlike ever before. In addition, Instagram and Snapchat have made us expect an accelerated publishing speed and a deprioritization of text.

However, just because we are moving toward a more visual lexicon doesn’t mean that all imagery is created equally. The right way to succeed in journalism is not for something to be more visual — it’s the quality of the visuals that matters. Since our audience is bombarded with imagery through advertising, social media, texting, emoji, virtual reality and artificial reality, there will be a lot of bad journalism produced in the name of these technologies as publishers make bets on catering to a more visual audience. The journalist behind the camera is still the most important part of this discussion. His or her eye is what will make or break these visually driven projects.

We still must find smart ways to push visual journalism further and to make sure our readers know the integrity and ethics behind the creation of our photographs. Strong visual content doesn’t have to come at the expense of prose, and I think that some of our best stories at The Times are collaborations between writers and visual journalists. That said, I do think that many photographers and video journalists are now taking on a greater ownership of our storytelling than ever before.

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