Global and CBC News look at using drones to cover breaking news

On The Kowch Exclusive

Steve Kowch was first Canadian blogger to look at using drones for breaking news coverageFrom where I sit On The Kowch, there’s an interesting debate going on at Canada’s television news networks about the use of remote controlled drones for breaking news coverage. Both Global News and CBC News told kowchmedia in a series of exclusive interviews, that they have been looking into the use of drones as a potential news gathering tool. Only CTV declined to comment on its position of drones being used for breaking news coverage.

“It’s a timely question, as we’re in the middle of a discussion internally about what our approach should be when it comes to employing this technology,” says Jack Nagler, Director of Journalistic Public Accountability and Engagement, CBC News.

“We’re intrigued by the possibilities of what drones can offer in news gathering, so long as we can employ them responsibly and use them to improve our coverage” – CBC’s Jack Nagler

CBC thinking of using drones for breaking news coverage“There’s a lot to consider, ranging from legal issues to journalistic ethics to the actual value of the material you can obtain. We don’t currently have a specific policy relating to drones, but we are going to develop one,” says Nagler.

The policy will be guided by CBC’s existing Journalistic Standards and Practices, which already covers a number of the issues that might arise, including people’s privacy rights, how and when drones can do recordings that might be considered clandestine, to mitigating any harm that might be caused by its presence.

Over at Global News, there’s also been a lot of talk about drones.

Global thinking of using drones for breaking news coverage“This is an area we’ve been looking at quite a bit recently” says Troy Reeb, Senior VP, Global News and Station Operations. But don’t look for Global drones hovering over the scene of breaking news any time soon. That’s because they have a large fleet of Robinson-22 news helicopters in Vancouver, Calgary, Edmonton, Winnipeg and Toronto.

“We feel that having manned aircraft with an obvious presence is still the best way to go for airborne news-gathering,” Reeb says.

Ron Waksman is Global’s Senior Director of Online and Current Affairs, Editorial Standards and Practices. As a former private pilot, Ron brings an interesting balance to the discussion about using drones for news coverage.

“While I appreciate the potential value as a journalistic tool, I am also familiar with regulatory issues related to an already crowded airspace around large urban centres, says Waksman.

“You cannot look at drones in isolation, you need to figure out where they fit into an aviation ecosystem” – Global’s Ron Waksman

In Canada, drone operators need special authorization from Transport Canada. Waksman says authorizations are issued on a case-by-case basis.

“This is obviously not a very workable regulatory environment for the media, which requires an immediate response to ensure immediate news coverage in a digital world.”

Immediacy is one of the main reasons Global prefers its R-22 helicopters over drones for newsgathering. Waksman believes they are a safer more reliable option, especially in marginal weather and flight conditions.

”The HD shooter/reporters aboard Global News helicopters are very skilled at their jobs and able to get ‘the shot’ even when conditions are not perfect,” Waksman says.

That said, Global is still leaving the door open on the use of drones down the road.

drones like this may be used for breaking news coverage on TV

“In my research on drones for journalistic purposes I’ve discovered there are already some very experienced and skilled operators out there, who are very mindful of the airspace and not getting in the way of emergency services operating on the ground,” says Waksman.

“We will continue to explore a future that may include UAVs. In fact, I have asked for a meeting with a Global News freelancer who’s been working with drones for some time. He provided us with some backyard aerials of the Angus (Ontario) tornado damage. While interesting, those drone visuals did not come close to providing the same perspective on the destruction as the Global News chopper.”

Global also wants the government to provide training standards for drone operators and for these operators to demonstrate reliability and that they will not lose control of their UAVs.

The training process has already started with the introduction this year of a new drone journalism program at the College of the North Atlantic in Newfoundland and Labrador and Langara College in Vancouver.

College of the North Atlantic students learn how to use drones

College of the North Atlantic instructor Jeff Ducharme with students in the drone journalism program – photo Stephen Winsor/CNA Journalism

Jeff Ducharme is a journalism instructor with the College of the North Atlantic where he created a Drone Code of Conduct – the first for a journalism school in Canada.

“One day, journalists using drones will be no different than using news helicopters, but the reality is that, for the most part, it will involve more self-regulation than government-led regulation. Having a code will help the industry operate in a professional and consistent manner,” wrote Ducharme in The Canadian Journalism Project.

“It is incumbent on us to show society that we can operate drones without jeopardizing the public’s privacy or safety.”

At Langara College, the 12 students enrolled in the one year journalism certificate program are divided into three teams of four students: a pilot, an aerial camera operator, a producer/spotter and a ground camera operator. Students rotate through the duties.

View Langara College video of the class flying their drone:


Ethan Baron is the lead instructor of the program. In an article written for The Canadian Journalism Project, he says students are learning to fly a $1,200 drone—the DJI Innovations Phantom 2 Vision – with four rotors and a built-in 14-megapixel camera that stores imagery on its memory card and also beams it to a smartphone. The aircraft, controlled with a two-joystick console resembling those used for video games, is about the diameter of a medium pizza and weighs a kilo and a half.

“Students are also studying the legal and ethical issues that surround the use of drones to cover news,” says Baron. “Drone students at Langara follow a lengthy list of rules addressing Transport Canada regulations, journalistic practices and ethics. High on the list are prohibitions against flying a drone within 30 metres of people or above anyone’s head, distracting emergency officials with a drone or aggravating hostage-takers with one.”

From where I sit On The Kowch, things are so much more civil here in Canada between Transport Canada and drone operators compared to what is happening in the States where the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has been waging a war against drones. It has gone as far as the FAA ordering two universities to shut down their drone journalism programs, imposing a $10,000 fine on the operator of a drone shooting a promotional video and threatening a newspaper with legal action if it posted photos on the internet taken by a drone.

Things got so bad, a coalition of 14 American media corporations and journalism organizations went to court claiming the FAA policy on drones violates the First Amendment (freedom of speech, freedom of the press) and endangering the rights of drone journalists. They won their case but the FAA is appealing.

Meanwhile in this country, Transport Canada is in the process of developing permit-issuing policies for drone operators, including those in media – which could be good for Global or CBC News if ever they decide to start using drones to cover the news.

Steve Kowch ran two of Canada’s largest newstalk radio stations in Montreal and Toronto for more than 14 years. He is the author of 99 Things You Wish You Knew Before Making It BIG In Media

Call Steve at 647-521-6397 or email