A Secret History of Unmanned Bombing

Last week America’s drone war was brought back into sharp focus when President Obama admitted that a US drone strike in January killed two al Qaeda hostages, an American and an Italian. “It is a cruel and bitter truth that in the fog of war generally, and our fight against terrorists specifically, mistakes, sometimes deadly mistakes, can occur,” Obama told the nation.

Writing in the New York Times, Peter Baker noted that the apology underscored “the perils of a largely invisible, long-distance war waged through video screens, joysticks and sometimes incomplete intelligence.” Jason Linkins and Ryan Grim of the Huffington Post put it more directly in their piece, “A Drone Program That Has Killed Hundreds Of Civilians Finally Killed Some That The White House Regrets.”

Two days before Obama’s press conference I was on a long drive, binging on podcasts, and found myself immersed in a kind of secret history of unmanned bombing. Two random podcasts came on almost back-to-back that were haunting in their description of the lengths humans will go to drop bombs on each other. The two stories are powerful in and of themselves, but were made all the more striking in light of Obama’s comments.

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The Ethics of Sensor Journalism: Community, Privacy and Control

Last week the Tow Center at Columbia University held its first research conference, Quantifying Journalism: Data, Metrics, and Computation, where it released three major new reports on Data Journalism, User Generated Content and Sensors. All three reports are important additions to the conversation about technology, reporting and ethics, with some useful and at times provocative recommendations.

I contributed an essay to the report on Sensors and Journalism. The project was led by Fergus Pitt, whose research and case studies make up the bulk of the 200+ page book. But joining me in contributing essays were great scholars, lawyers and journalists whose work adds hugely to this emerging field.

My essay focused on the ethical considerations that arise as journalists engage their communities through the use of sensors. The piece looks at questions around the shifting nature of public and private information, and new privacy concerns that journalists have to contend with in the age of big data. I looked at how the use of sensors intersect with historic issues of discrimination, power and surveillance and describe concrete steps newsrooms can take to engage communities openly and honestly around these issues.   Continue reading

Bearing Witness and Becoming a Source

Drones have been in the news a lot this month, but that coverage hasn’t always been easy given the incredible secrecy around the drone program. While hearings on Capitol Hill and leaked memos shed some much needed light on the program, there is still a lot more we don’t know.

Over at the Huffington Post, Michael Calderone has a good piece on where journalists are turning for details and in-depth information on drones. Calderone’s article focuses on the work of Bill Roggio at The Long War Journal and his work tracking drone statistics, but the story is part of a larger trend of individuals bearing witness and becoming sources for newsrooms that increasingly have less capacity for the long, sustained work of tracking these kinds of details:

“While the use of drones is perhaps the most controversial foreign policy issue of President Obama’s second term, major media outlets have been outsourcing the collection of strike data to three lesser-known news-gathering entities. The covert U.S. drone war in Pakistan and Yemen has been notoriously difficult to track over the years, making The Long War Journal’s statistics -– along with those compiled by theNew America Foundation and The Bureau of Investigative Journalism -– essential for news organizations that haven’t been independently tracking each strike or number of suspected militants and civilians killed.”

In October of 2011 I began tracking journalist arrests at Occupy Wall Street protests when New York Times journalist, Natasha Leonard, was arrested on the Brooklyn Bridge. By the end of the month ten journalists had been arrested, and a month later that number was over thirty. Police interference with press around the US became a major story for much of 2011 and the first half of 2012. Continue reading