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Dan Rather: A Technology Junky Before His Time

I’ve always admired this week’s guest, Dan Rather, not only because I think he’s an excellent investigative reporter who set the mold for those who followed in his footsteps, but also because he was a guy who embraced technology during an time when so many people didn’t.  Consider television.  He was one of the pioneers as a journalist in that medium when many of his peers thought TV was a passing fad that only appealed to the feeble minded.  Rather saw television for what it was: a way to bring the viewing audience into the story like no other reporting medium could.

Rather was one of the first TV reporters who broadcast directly from the battlefield in Vietnam, using what was then cutting edge portable video camera technology.  His field reporting brought home the truly awful nature of the Vietnam war to Americans and no doubt played a significant role in the decline in public support for the war. And I have to mention one of the most entertaining images of Dan Rather I remember.  He was reporting from the floor of the Democratic convention in 1968 wearing this awesome hitech-looking helmet that let him broadcast remotely throughout the event. He looked like some sort of astronaut!

Technology and innovation has always played a significant role in journalism, going all the way back to the invention of the printing press by Gutenberg in 1450, which led to the creation of the newspaper. And, in time of shrinking news budgets and increasing costs, the news media has been forced to adopt innovative new ways of using technology to continue to keep their audiences.

If take a smartphone and pair it with social media, what do you get?  Millions and millions of citizen reporters who are usually the first on the scene of a breaking news story, capturing it in pictures and video and posting it online. Every major news outlet has people on staff whose sole job it is to troll through social media sites for trending stories.  Some even invite people to sign up as reporters and upload their content directly to the networks.  CNN calls their cadre of unpaid citizen reporters iReporters and gives them byline credit when they use their material during a broadcast.  We are, in effect, now crowdsourcing the news, meaning we are using millions of people to provide the content to the networks instead of the networks having to send one of the few reporters they have left to cover a story.

What’s the next big technological frontier for the media?  They are salivating at the prospect of use unmanned aerial vehicles or what we more commonly refer to as drones to get into places that were impossible to access in the past.  Imagine these small drones, the size of a trashcan or tricycle, flying over the fences that normally keep reporters out to record a story, or to hover closely over the scene of building fire, transmitting video back to the studio from a perspective no one could achieve before.  The FAA has yet to approve the rules that would allow the widespread commercial use of drones, but already the networks are lobbying hard to make sure they are able to use drones freely and without many restrictions as a new source for reporting.  And that has privacy rights advocates rightly worried.  If you are the subject of a news story now, at least you can see the reporter coming but imagine a time in the not too distant future when you are surprised when you look up into the sky and see at a little drone hovering overhead with a camera aimed right at your face. Welcome to your fifteen minutes of fame!

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