Skip to main content
Ever Seen the Ocean Floor? Drones Enable Journalists to Create Exciting New Immersive Stories
Professor John Pavlik explains in a recently published paper how drones and other emerging technologies are enabling journalists to create increasingly exciting immersive journalism experiences for their audiences, and creating new challenges as well.
Ever Seen the Ocean Floor? Drones Enable Journalists to Create Exciting New Immersive Stories

Flying low over Antarctica, she can see directly below a glacier melting – rivers of fresh water fill the deep clefts in the ice. While she’s watching, she is also learning that the melting ice results in rising sea levels, which might impact islands as far away as Manhattan, the island she lives on.

She experienced all of this and she never left her kitchen. How is this possible?

Journalists are now using drones and other emerging technologies to capture live footage of remote places, sometimes in locations where humans have never been before, to tell their stories in increasingly gripping ways that completely engage the viewer.

These technologies are becoming so sophisticated that one day we might be reading about greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, while looking at an image of carbon dioxide -- taken by a camera that can actually see atmospheric gases the human eye cannot.

Imagine all the other places journalists might be able to “take” their audiences by using drones that enhance our experiences through augmented reality, virtual reality, and mixed reality? Inside a refugee camp, deep into remote forests, caves, under water, above large cities, up in the clouds, perhaps even inside the human body. Drones equipped with sensors could even capture haptic data, enabling people to smell, feel, and touch the subjects of news stories.

In a new paper, titled “Drones, Augmented Reality and Virtual Reality Journalism: Mapping Their Role in Immersive News Content” by SC&I Professor of Journalism and Media Studies John Pavlik, published in the journal Media and Communicationthis month, Pavlik describes these new types of technologies and the ways they present new opportunities but also great challenges for journalists.

In the paper, Pavlik outlines four main ways drones are changing journalism for practitioners and consumers. Pavlik wrote, “the first one is enabling the possibility of providing aerial perspective for first-person perspective flight-based immersive journalism experiences; the second is providing geo-tagged audio and video for flight-based immersive news content; the third is providing the capacity for volumetric and 360 video capture; and the fourth is generating novel content types or content based on data acquired from a broad range of sensors beyond the standard visible light captured via video cameras; these may be a central generator of unique experimental media content beyond visual flight-based news content.”

Pavlik contends that drones can help journalists demonstrate the accuracy of their reporting, increasing the public trust in journalism and maintaining journalism as a vital component of a working democracy.

However, Pavlik also discusses at length some of the potential issues using drones presents journalists and media companies. For instance, the equipment is very expensive, so currently, Pavlik said, only large companies such as the New York Times and National Geographic are able to fully take advantage of it. Might the advent of these expensive and complicated technologies requiring (perhaps) additional staff make it more challenging for smaller news outlets to survive?

“I think the advent of these emerging media do present challenges to news media and other media organizations, both technically and economically,” Pavlik said. “However, the most innovative news media and other media organizations have embraced the use of drones, virtual reality and also augmented reality (which can be produced and experienced using handheld digital devices such as smartphones).  By using these emerging media in some cases costs can actually be reduced (e.g., drones are much cheaper in news gathering than the use of a helicopter). In other cases, these emerging media present opportunities to create news content that is highly engaging and immersive and can help to contextualize the news (e.g., drone video can provide a wide-angle view of news events on the ground to help viewers see the bigger picture, such as in a brush fire). These tools can give legacy news media a way to add value to their journalism and potentially rebuild public trust in the news, which has eroded in recent decades. And it’s hard to put a price tag on the value of that trust.”

Journalists will also need to address complicated and potentially far-reaching ethical issues involved in the use of these technologies. “Ethics is a critically important aspect of the use of any emerging digital technologies, and especially so with powerful ones such as drones and virtual reality,” Pavlik said. “Most news organizations have ethics rules that govern how their reporters work, although the guidelines for how to create virtual reality journalism and how to use drones are still taking shape.  

I have brought these issues into my teaching of Media Ethics & Law here at Rutgers, to help ensure that future generations of journalists and media professionals will know how to use these emerging tools ethically.  In terms of legal or regulatory frameworks, the FAA is the federal agency that regulates drone use, and there are relevant regulations or statutes in many states or localities, especially regarding privacy and safety considerations of drone use. And in the U.S., all drone pilots must register with the FAA.  Regulations regarding virtual reality or virtual reality journalism pertain mostly to the safe or healthy use of VR platforms.”

Another issue Pavlik draws attention to is the need for the journalism profession to address the additional training journalists must acquire to be able to use these technologies, and another potential issue -- using these new technologies might pose time constraints that could be problematic for journalists on tight deadlines.  

“I think journalists and media professionals will likely address the challenges of emerging media and the knowledge and skill needed to operate them effectively by engaging in continuing education, specializing where needed, and also collaborating or partnering with technology specialists where appropriate,” Pavlik said. “Many professional news media who are creating virtual reality journalism, for example, have partnered with technology companies in order to create the highest quality immersive news content.  News organizations and their journalists typically focus on the news elements of the content, such as the facts and sources and how to tell an immersive story objectively and accurately.  Meanwhile, the technology company focuses on the technical aspects of using a camera-equipped drone, or the production aspects of creating immersive, three-dimensional and 360-degree audio and video.” 

High schools and universities will also need to adapt to be able to prepare their students for successful careers as the journalism field changes, and students who work on their school newspapers will also need to adapt.  “The technology that journalists and media professionals use to do their work continues to evolve, and drones and virtual reality (VR) are two important examples of these changing tools,” said Pavlik. “Yes, they can be expensive (thousands of dollars), although prices are falling and some options for entry-level professional media production and analysis of drones and VR are much less expensive (hundreds of dollars). I think much as school newspapers and journalism departments have in the past sometimes purchased a limited number of cameras and microphones for their students to learn on and work within a shared environment, I think drones and VR could be approached in a similar fashion.  These tools are becoming an increasing part of mainstream journalism and media and students should learn both about their impact on the field and on society as well as have an opportunity to learn at least the basics of news and media production using them.  

 SC&I is prepared and has already changed its curriculum to prepare its students for the future. Pavlik said, “In recent years we have evolved our curriculum to integrate many emerging digital media. In the courses I teach I do bring virtual reality and drones into the materials the students study and in some cases learn to use.” 

Professor of Professional Practice and Director of Undergraduate Studies Program in Journalism and Media Studies Steve Miller said, “The Department of Journalism and Media Studies is always looking for new and better ways to keep our curriculum current so we can better educate our students about technological changes that impact our field. By doing so, we are helping to properly prepare them for what will certainly be a digital future.  Professor Pavlik has long advocated integrating newer media, like Augmented and Virtual Reality, into our classrooms and encouraged our faculty and staff to stay abreast of these changes. His foresight has served us well.”

More information about the Department of Journalism and Media Studies at the Rutgers School of Communication and Information is on the website

Photo: Richard Segal for Pexels


Back to top