It seems every few months [insert shiny new thing here] becomes the future of journalism. Drones are the latest harbinger of journalism’s future. The first time I heard the term “dronealism” my immediate response was “here we go again.” I’ve continued to feel that way dozens of times since, each time I hear some variation of: “Drones are going to revolutionize journalism!”

After speaking with Faine Greenwood, co-author of new report on drones, last week about her work examining the role of drones in mapping and humanitarian work, I’ve had to rethink my position. First I’d like to make it clear why I think chasing “the future of journalism” is, by and large, nothing more than a clickbait trope. The American Press Institute’s Journalism Essentials reminds us:

“The purpose of journalism,” write Bill Kovach and Tom Rosenstiel in The Elements of Journalism, “is not defined by technology, nor by journalists or the techniques they employ.”... “The purpose of journalism is thus to provide citizens with the information they need to make the best possible decisions about their lives, their communities, their societies, and their governments.”

It’s that second point showed me why I need to rethink my attitude toward drones. Faine pointed me to several articles on drones, the one that gives me the most cause to rethink my attitude is about the role drones are playing in providing Indonesian indigenous peoples all-important information that helps them protect their land.

Radjawali’s drones helped the Dayaks of Sanggau Regency in West Kalimantan to successfully challenge a bauxite mine in court,” Explains Greenwood. “The high-definition maps were hard to argue with, and an indigenous representative was able to challenge the mining company in court.”

This video from the Guardian demonstrates there is obviously a place for drones in documenting mass humanitarian events such as the refugee migration through the Balkans:

However, I would like to leave you with one caveat, while drones may have a place in “The future of citizen journalism,” drones aren’t the answer to everything and likely will never be present truly everywhere. Drones are best used when an individual, journalist or otherwise, sets out to document a specific project for which aerial imagery will provide the best documentation.

Additionally, it’s worth noting that in some communities, drones have a connotation that may never be friendly to the community. In countries like Yemen and Pakistan where drones have become synonymous with civilian deaths, drone journalism’s enthusiasts will have a very hard time gaining broad support from the community.

Smartphones, however, are always with us. They are a tool that has many uses, of which documenting socially important and journalistic events is only an added feature. It’s hard to imagine a future in which smartphones will become less ubiquitous than they are today.

It’s equally difficult to imagine a future where drones become so ubiquitous that they prove DJI Director of Photography  Eric Cheng’s bold claims true: “A protest, an accident, a disaster, someone’s going to be there streaming from it.”

The next time someone tells you [insert shiny new thing here] is the future of journalism, be sure to ask them, “How does [shiny new thing] help provide citizens with the information they need to make the best possible decisions about their lives, their communities, their societies, and their governments?”

Unless someone is paying for the creation of that information, or the tools and techniques are as ubiquitous as smartphones, it’s probably not the future of journalism, though it may well have a role to play.

It’s becoming obvious to me that drones have a role to play in documenting not only disasters, but news events, increasing the accessibility of geospatial information, and helping us better understand our world.