In fact, since the mid-1980s, when the U.S. government began licensing commercial satellites, those images have been used repeatedly by both the print and broadcast media to illustrate and explain stories such as the nuclear meltdown at Chernobyl, wars in the Middle East, the Exxon Valdez oil spill in Alaska and, more recently, the plane crash that killed Commerce Secretary Ron Brown.
Satellite, or remote-sensing, imagery also has been used by the news media to develop investigative stories based on the data.
But as the federal government rethinks its licensing of commercial satellites, news organizations have stepped up to warn against controls that could amount to unconstitutional prior restraint.
The National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), which oversees the regulations for licensing commercial satellites, recently solicited public comment about updating those regulations. It is likely there will be public hearings before a more detailed rule-making proposal is put forth.
Included in the areas in which NOAA is soliciting comment are a review of the license application procedures; what standards and procedures should be applied when restricting imagery for national security/foreign policy concerns; and the impact of foreign agreements.
The regulations currently give a certain degree of "shutter control" to the secretary of commerce, in consultation with the secretaries of defense and
state, if they believe distributing data from a certain area might compromise national security or foreign policy interests.
That standard, however, is simply too vague ? and amounts to unconstitutional prior restraint ? as far as the media are concerned.
In comments filed with NOAA, the Radio-Television News Directors Association, the American Society of Newspaper Editors, the Media Institute, the National Broadcasting Co. Inc., and the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press maintained that the "current U.S. policy governing remote-sensing images creates the possibility of prior restraint of both the gathering and dissemination of news, because it grants the government 'shutter control' over privately owned commercial remote-sensing systems without the requisite showing of a clear and present danger or a judicial determination that such censorship is justified.
"Further, they charged that "the developing marketplace for commercial remote-sensing imagery is inhibited by a regulatory environment that does not adequately reflect the free-expression standards of U.S. constitutional law."
The media comments noted that as both print and electronic media "learn more about remote-sensing imagery and photo-interpretation analysis, they will begin to rely more heavily upon imagery not only as one way to cover certain stories, but as a source of stories that might never have been discovered otherwise.
"This field, then, has the potential to become not only a viable commercial enterprise but also an invaluable public interest vehicle, contributing exponentially to the news media's ability to gather information, and thus, to the public's 'right to know.' "
The media groups urged NOAA to "take every precaution not to hinder the use of this investigative tool unnecessarily and unlawfully" when it crafts its regulations.
Further, they noted, the press needs to know in advance "whether, when and how content-based restrictions will be imposed," or government restrictions could "undermine the economic viability" of such systems for news gathering and possibly "chill the willingness of mass media organizations and other parties to invest substantial sums in developing such systems and applying for a license to operate them."
In addition to their First Amendment concerns, the media groups also pointed out that the regulations raise questions about Fifth Amendment protections against unreasonable searches and seizures and government taking property without just compensation.
Aside from the effects on a free market, "such a taking raises questions as to whether the government's underlying motive in granting commercial licenses is to provide a backup for its own intelligence gathering, e.g., affording it the ability to confiscate the fruits of news-gathering efforts in areas where the government does not have its own reconnaissance" the media groups commented.
ABC News producer Mark Brender, who founded and chairs the RTNDA remote-sensing task force, frequently uses satellite material in news reports and is one of the newsmen leading the industry in this field.
"It's a cultural change for the government to have to accept high-resolution image sensing," he explained. "For 40 years, the government imaging has been the only game in town. Now, it's time for the spy satellites to move over. There is a great discomfort level throughout the government, especially at the State Department, as this commercial technology matures."
The industry is growing, as the "government loosens its grip," Brender told E&P, "but the difficulty for these new commercial imaging companies is for them to get investment partners. The commercial imaging companies cannot assure investors that the government will not step in and take over the satellite."
Although right now there is no company providing 1-meter image resolution (which means images on the ground as small as 1 meter in diameter can be seen clearly), Brender said that "within a year, there will be."
"If, right now, China is moving forces toward Taiwan ? it's about to do a large-scale military exercise ? we would like to be able to see it. We can't now," he explained. "With 1-meter resolution, we could observe from an orbiting camera the extent of China's military movements, especially at airfields.
"That would have news value," he said.
Brender agreed that, "When there is a direct, immediate threat to national security, the government should be able to restrict coverage of a particular area for a certain period of time.
"But the standards by which the government decides when to restrict should be very high," he added, "so that the government is not able to issue shutter control orders merely based on political whims, political senses and frivolous concerns."
Although television news seems to be making the most frequent use of this technology, anyone who thinks such imagery is only for the broadcast media is mistaken.
In fact, it was its use of aerial (though not satellite) imagery following Hurricane Andrew that helped the Miami Herald take home a 1993 Pulitzer Prize for Public Service (E&P, April 17, p. 9).
More recently, the Boston Globe used satellite imagery on its front page to illustrate articles about the Ron Brown plane crash.
Stephen Doig, associate editor/research at the Miami Herald, explained that by combining aerial data with inspection records and other information, the newspaper was able to determine that, in many cases, newer houses suffered more damage in the hurricane than older ones.
In searching for the source of what appeared to be a paradoxical conclusion, the Herald team found that lax building codes were at the heart of the trouble.
The Herald team combined post-storm inspection data with existing information, such as the property-tax roll, and began putting the patterns and variables together.
"I thought the strongest pattern was the age of the house," Doig said, "and, counterintuitively, it wasn't like older houses did worse. Older houses, in general, tended to do well."
With that information in hand, the Herald team acquired aerial imagery of the storm-damaged areas.
"I would have loved to have had satellite imagery," Doig noted.
"By having created this map of damages, we could then quickly find places where you had essentially adjacent subdivisions with very different damage experience, which was part of the theme" of the investigation, Doig said.
"It was the first sort of overall view that our readers had gotten of what they had gone through," Doig said, adding that the newspaper used the images to illustrate an 18-page special section on the hurricane.
Doig said he would use aerial, or satellite, imagery again "as appropriate" and cited additional story applications such as tracking the path of a tornado or other storm; looking at wetland loss and other environmental situations; using an illustration of downtown Havana ? "particularly because flying over it is no longer as nearly a good idea as it seemed to be before" ? and counting and tracking the rafters who leave Cuba for Florida.
"I think there are lots of possibilities," Doig said.
James J. Frelk, vice president/government relations for Earth Watch Inc. of Longmont, Colo., told those at an American University symposium that his company plans to launch a satellite later this summer with 3-meter capability, and a year later to launch a satellite capable of 1-meter imagery.
Space Imaging Inc. of Thornton, Colo., currently in the business of aerial photography, also is planning to launch a satellite next year that will offer 1-meter resolution.
John Neer, Space Imaging's president and chief operating officer, explained that with the new satellite, images from such current events as the unrest in Liberia and the crash site of the commerce secretary's plane can be available to the news media within 24 hours.
"For emerging current events, the availability of timely data, accurate information, and this high-resolution content data is really what the media will principally benefit from," Neer told E&P.
While the satellite will pass the same place at the same time each day, Neer explained that the company can retask the satellite to cover a particular area.
"Every hour-and-a-half, we can send it new instructions to take a set of pictures anywhere in the world," he said.
But as much promise as the new imagery holds for the future, Neer also cautioned against potential misuse from intentional image manipulation and from interpretations of the images that simply are wrong.
"Interpretation [of imagery] is not fully dependent on our data alone," he said. "It is a caution the industry has to take to heart . . . . There is collateral information that has to be merged with our information to follow a solid conclusion before it gets printed."
Neer pointed to a "collective learning problem" and stressed that "training in the use of this data and information source is something that the media need to develop within the industry."
"Photojournalists need to be digital photojournalists," he added. "The education program must be upgraded to handle this type of imagery data."
As to the licensing proposals, Neer said his company's policy is still emerging, but noted that it focuses more on national security issues with respect to economic competitiveness, as opposed to the First and Fourth Amendment issues raised by the media.
"Just as communications satellites revolutionized the world, so will these commercial [imagery] satellites," Neer added.
"The world that talks together should see together. It's an exciting new time.
"Getting ready for it is the responsible act. Getting employees knowledgeable in how to use and manipulate [the data] is the responsible first act," Neer said.
"We need more people like Mark [Brender] who understand the implications of this technology, and are not just advocating it for their own company but put it in the context of the big picture ? literally."
At American University in Washington, D.C., journalism professor Christopher Simpson is directing the two-year Project on Satellite Imagery and the News Media.
To date, the project has produced two publications, Journalists' Guide to Remote Sensing Resources on the Internet and Remote Sensing: A Legal Primer and Resource Book, and next year plans to publish a directory of experts in the field who are available for media interviews and consultations.
Using the increase in the use and understanding of satellite weather data as an example, Simpson noted that "the process of interpreting, or making sense, of the information is getting easier and easier.
"What the imagery providers are pointing to ? and they are right in this ? and media experts point out, is that the initial interpretation is, in some sense, the most difficult," Simpson explained. "Once a reputable expert makes sense of the scene, it's pretty straightforward for a layperson to understand what the expert has to say."
An infamous example of a misreading frequently cited occurred during the Chernobyl disaster.
"Images from space using infrared
display vegetation as red and other
terrain as green," Simpson explained, "one of the major networks, which
knew next to nothing about image interpretation, saw the red and said all the fields were on fire.
"That was simply wrong and it was obviously embarrassing for them," he said, adding, "They are more sophisticated now."
[Another telling of the story, by retired CIA photo intelligence specialist Dino Brugioni, has a major network reporting that two reactors at Chernobyl melted down, because the satellite imagery showed two hot spots. The problem was, one spot was in the middle of town, where there was no reactor.]
To stop these mistakes, Simpson said news outlets "need people on staff who have at least a basic education in this, just as they need people with a basic education in computer networks."
Simpson also suggested making color adjustments ? not changing the picture, only the color ? so the image is more understandable to the audience. Such a process can be done on a desktop computer.
"What's going on here is that we're moving into an era of transparency," Simpson said.
"The United States Security policy has a choice: on one hand, it can accept that this is the reality we are facing and deal with that . . . or, it can pretend that it is not happening, or that it will go away, by enacting regulations at the Commerce Department.
"The genie is already well out of the bottle," he said. "The types of materials that are cause for concern are already available routinely at the speed of light. That will not change, regardless of what the U.S. government does."
Simpson called satellite imagery "a very important issue for the news media, both because it is a powerful tool and for its precedent-setting characteristics.
"The government is attempting to say that any technology that steps beyond the bounds of what we're used to is not really protected by the First Amendment. The excuse in this scenario is national security," he said, adding that similar concerns were raised about photography, radio and telegraphy in their infancies.
"The battle is upon us. It is now," Simpson said. "News organizations need to understand that decisions are being made now that will have a great impact on them for the coming decade in dealing with high-resolution photography and image gathering of many sorts."
In addition to commenting on the rule making and participating as friends of the court when appropriate, Simpson suggested that news media also start training staffers in this field.
At a number of newspapers and television stations, "there are producers, reporters, graphics specialists, who have solid knowledge in how these systems work and how they can be put to use more effectively."
The senior executives at news outlets "need to understand this is a powerful new tool."
"The main thing that stands in the way of making effective use of it is our graphic illiteracy, or technical reservation.
That is getting in the way right now of effective use of these tools," Simpson commented.
"The truth is," he said, "the editorial side of newspapers was much slower to adapt computer technology than the business side of those very same businesses, and much slower to adopt it than most companies in the United States.
"That's history. The question is, are we going to do this again?" he asked.
?(This color-enhanced image of Rochester, N.Y., shows a 0.84-meter ground sample distance.) [Photo & Caption]
?(By comparing past and present images, changes in the environment become clear. Here, a recently declassified 1962 image of the Aral Sea from the government's CORONA satellite program (left) is a compared with a 1994 image from a National Ocenographic and Atmospheric Adminsitration satellite. The shrinkage of the sea is reportedly from the reallocation of water for irrigation.) [Photo & Caption]
?(The U.S. government's CORONA satellite program collected images of the former Soviet Union from 1960 until 1972. This image, of the Severodvinsk Shipyard, where diesel and nuclear submarines were built (left), is part of the hundreds of images declassified by a 1995 executive order.) [Photo & Caption]
By: DEBRA GERSH HERNANDEZ SATELLITES ARE NOT just for spying anymore.