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The growth of satellite imagery in journalism

Digital Globe image
Image: CSIS Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative/DigitalGlobe

The recent and rapid evolution in satellite imagery has had a profound effect on the abilities of journalists to cover stories around the world in hard-to-reach places, Journalist Fellow Mark Corcoran argues in his paper, ‘Satellite Journalism – The Big Picture’. Reporting of issues such as environmental destruction, developments in military infrastructure, and natural disasters have been made easier by this continually-evolving industry.

The number of annual satellite launches has increased as a new generation of smaller 'disrupters' enter the market. Simultaneously, the average weight of each satellite has fallen dramatically, from an average or 8,440kg in 2000 to just 120kg in 2017. Every day, one small satellite company is able to map the entire surface of Earth at a resolution of just three to five metres.

In his paper, Mark states that for some parts of the media, satellite imagery not only aids visual storytelling but has become a routine source of news: ‘Satellite companies now provide some media clients with a near real-time news source via direct access to imagery databases.’ Two private companies Planet Labs and Digital Globe provide their imagery, with some exceptions, to the media free of charge. Because of this they now dominate the rapidly growing market.

As often happens in new industries, Mark believes, appropriate regulation and levels of public awareness are trailing behind technological innovation and application. The growth in the availability of satellite imagery has led to new forms of control where reasons of ‘national security’ are often given for restricting the media's access to certain images. There are also cases of inaccurate interpretation of satellite images, which are being addressed through training and the development of automated analysis processes.

Despite these issues, satellite imagery is now mainstream, and for many organisations, from major international publishers, to smaller investigative units, it has become an ‘extraordinary newsgathering and storytelling tool’.

Read the full report, 'Satellite Journalism - the Big Picture'