Using satellite imagery for journalism? Here’s a beginner’s guideline

Using satellite imagery for journalism? Here’s a beginner’s guideline


Satellites are opening up new frontiers in journalism by providing reporters with a ‘Bird’s Eye’ view of things and the availability of incontrovertible data and precise information. There are some guidelines one must keep in mind while using satellite imagery for journalism purpose.

Don’t drag imagery just for the heck for it: Satellite imagery shouldn’t be used simply because it’s cool even when it doesn’t add any value to a story. For purely decorative purposes, simple photos are always better. Even when something has happened somewhere, it is better to use a map to give the spatial context if your imagery is not adding any intelligence to the story.

Don’t dig into too technical datasets: National space agencies like NASA or ESA have satellites which use radar or other scientific instruments to measure ice, wind, ocean etc. One needs experts to analyze these specialized datasets.

Satellite imagery for journalism
NASA’s Terra satellite collected infrared snapshots of Hurricane Lane pushing towards the Hawaiian Islands.

Therefore, such imagery should be accessed only in cases where the media team has data analysts who can read such imagery. The best option is to fall back on NASA/ESA-generated stories on these topics (they actually do a lot of such stories!) or else speak to an expert.

Know you are lucky to have a satellite flying by: But be ready to be disappointed also. Sometimes you may not get anything of a particular area at a particular time – due to time, resolution of the satellite flying by, cloud cover etc. If you have the resources, you could ask DigitalGlobe to task a satellite, but that again is for future times.

Satellites cannot monitor an area many times through the day: Despite the reduction in revisit times, the best-case example is Planet which can monitor all of earth only once a day.

They can’t get much insights at night: Clouds and smoke can also impede satellites. There are radar satellites which can look through clouds or image even at night. But again, unless someone is there to analyze those images, it won’t be possible for a layman to read them.

Satellite imagery for journalism
DLR’s TerraSAR-X Radar Satellite image the Aswan Dam in Egypt

Resolution matters: Know what you want; know what details you want. If you are looking at a flood-hit city or a quake-hit terrain, civil government satellites like Landsat and Sentinel are excellent free sources of data. To understand human-scale activity, like what’s going on at a construction site, high-resolution imagery is necessary.

And this may sound silly, but a must for beginners – once you have chosen your image, there is no way you can photoshop it later to make it “clearer”.

Even high-res has limitations: Remember, even 30 cm WorldView 3 and 4 of DigitalGlobe can give you only so much. For instance, satellite images can detect people, but can’t identify them; they can detect vehicles on the road but can’t identify the model.

ALSO READ: 10 places to get free satellite images for investigative journalists

It is surely not rocket science

Many journalists still operate with the mindset that imagery is for just visualization — which is the last stage while presenting a story — when imagery could be your primary set of data many a time.

There are several ways to use satellites to report on important aspects, especially when combined with other reporting methods and data sources. Reporting on disasters or change detection stories are simple. For investigative stories, things can take weeks or months to develop, and not all investigations are fruitful. So be patient. And good luck!