The Future of Drone Journalism

Most people have heard of aerial drones, but few know what they’re really capable of, especially in the field of journalism.

The DJI Inspire 1 Aerial Drone, featuring an HD camera, GPS, live-stream capabilities and sleek design. Source:

Most of today’s aerial drone models come with a mounted HD camera (or allow the user to attach his/her own). The journalistic appeal of this feature is somewhat obvious; Do you want to walk into a violent riot, or would you rather send a drone to fly over the action and get a better angle? Do you want to painstakingly map terrain using complicated software and photographs, or would you rather fly a drone around for 30 minutes to achieve the same result? Ultimately, drones can allow for safer, more efficient and thorough reporting.

Environmental, crisis, sports, weather and war-related journalism could all benefit from using aerial drones, yet their implementation in the field is limited. With this dilemma in mind, I set out to answer the following questions:

  • What were the first drones like? How did the technology become what it is today?
  • Which of today’s drones are best suited for use in journalism?
  • How are current drone journalists implementing this technology?
  • What are the issues they’ve faced?
  • What does the future hold for drone journalists and drone technology?

Drone Data Visualization:

For this analysis on the future drone journalism, I chose to visualize data by creating both an interactive drone timeline and an infographic comparing drone specifications for journalistic use.

Timeline:          Screen Shot 2015-12-08 at 4.50.12 PM

I browsed around on a few different timeline creation sites before having a go at It was the best site I found in terms of adding media, links and other data to event entries. I wanted to show the transition between military drone use in the past few decades into modern-day personal drone use. 

A reaper drone firing a missile. From

Although drones are still used for military purposes today (The Reaper drone is pretty terrifying), technology has progressed enough to let the drone into the lives of journalists and hobbyists. This ultimately opens up doors into the developing field of drone journalism.

My Timeglider Timeline can be found here. It’s easiest to set the zoom to about 75% and use the “previous” and “next” buttons at the bottom to flip through the events.

If you click on the event title, you’ll see my text entries about the drone models and the sources I used. Feel free to mess around with the zoom and photo sizes if it helps you visually. There are 9 total entries.


I thought it’d be interesting to compare drone specifications and pit different models against each other to determine which one is best-suited for use in journalism.

With this infographic, I wanted to do something similar to the graphic we looked at earlier in the semester that measured the corruption levels of various countries. I used a similar method by using a formula and compiling weighted variables to make the concept of “journalistic potential” more concrete.

Click here to access my infographic

This kind of visualization isn’t perfect because it relies on the creator’s opinion. I had to choose how much weight to give each variable and how each input could be translated into a “grade.” The better the overall “journalistic potential” of the drone, the higher its total percentage was on the stacked bar graph.

In short: “Journalistic potential” isn’t easily quantifiable, so I used my own researched opinion to visualize it.  

Future implications: The 5 drones I compared were all recently released (2014-2015) and can give us a glimpse into the future of drone technology. They suggest that future drones could have even longer flight times, wider operating ranges and better camera resolutions. Amazon’s new drones are one example of this. The company is working on some pretty remarkable technology right now. 

The Formula:

Here are the steps I took to make my weighted average formula and apply the specifications I researched: 

How my weighted formula works: I used an Excel tutorial site to make a simple weighted average calculator (the same kind you would use to calculate your grade at the end of a semester). I filled in the spec categories and their weights and copied this format for all five models.

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This is how the Spreadsheet looked before I entered “grades” for each spec.

Translating these specs to percentages that reflect journalistic potential was difficult at times. I tried to use the ranges between numbers to determine reasonable percentages. For example:

  • Max flight time between these models ranges from 18 minutes to 88 minutes, so I translated 18 minutes a 50% (a failing grade) and 88 minutes to an 100%. I estimated the rest of the numbers by placing them in between this minimum and maximum.
  • Same goes for Operating Range. I translated the maximum 2000 meters to 100%, the minimum 20 meters to 50%, and estimated the rest.
  • For price, I made the highest number ($10,000) a 50%, the lowest number ($1,495) an 100%, and estimated the rest.
  • For camera resolution, I translated 4k to 100% and 1080p to a 90% rather than 50%. This is because 1080p is still perfectly acceptable in the realm of journalism (although 4k is preferred).
  • For “Follow-me” and Live stream capability, I made “Yes” translate to 100% and “No” translate to 50%. Both of these features would be helpful for journalistic purposes. They hurt the journalistic potential of the drone by not being included in the programming.

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After assigning grades to the specifications and finding weighted averages, I was able to use the formula to determine which drone models were most valuable in the world of journalism.

They are all in the 74-84% cumulative range, but the DJI Inspire 1 comes out on top with an 84% grade for journalistic potential.

Interviews with Drone Journalists

I managed to connect with Rachel VanGilder and Matthew Schroyer  over e-mail last week to ask about drone journalism. The e-mail exchanges are attached below.

Rachel VanGilder is a Umich alum working at WOODTV8 as a senior digital content producer. She directed me to an FAQ page regarding WOODTV8’s recently purchased drone: Drone 8 (a model DJI Inspire 1). Most of my e-mail’s questions were answered in this previously-conducted interview by Kyle Underwood, Drone 8’s main pilot.

Matthew Schroyer is the president and founder of the Professional Society of Drone Journalists, an international organization that builds drones for journalistic purposes (including weather, environment, disasters, sports and more.) Schroyer was extremely enthusiastic and informative about drones, even taking the time to send me a thorough reply to my questions. He writes on FAA regulations, his organization’s goals and the future of drone journalism.

Rachen VanGilder Exchange: 

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Significant quotes from the Kyle Underwood FAQ Interview:

“As restrictions are relaxed and costs come down, commercially operated drones will become more common news gathering tools.”

  • Underwood shares my belief that drones will be increasingly implemented in news outlets in the years to come. He didn’t speak on potential consequences of drone use for journalism (probably because of his passion for this technology and the work it allows him to do).

“I think [Drone 8] is going to be a great help to us in terms of visual storytelling.”

  • We discussed in class how visual journalism is becoming more prevalent than print and how the millennial generation places greater value in concise, visually-engaging storytelling (rather than columns of text). This is a result of evolving smart phone technology, social media and countless other factors.
  • The fact that Underwood was excited about this switch to a more “visual” style of news indicates the strength of the visual movement. It seems almost inevitable that this trend will continue as drone technology develops.

Matthew Schroyer Exchange:

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My favorite quotes from this interview:

“[Other drone engineers in 2011] were making platforms that could image perhaps 100 acres of land in a single flight, and doing this on relatively small budgets. The utility of something like that — in a journalism context where you could prove certain things were happening on the ground — was very appealing.”

  • The fact that this much land could be digitally visualized in one flight is remarkable in itself. Moreover, this was happening in 2011, when personal drone technology was in early stages of development. It seems Schroyer really capitalized on this opportunity to apply this technology to journalism.  

“If the public is going to trust us with flying machines, we need to be responsible with them. In addition to the news, case studies, and rulemaking assistance, we have an ethical code which we expect our members to follow.”

  • This is a point I would’ve easily overlooked. According to Schroyer, the drone journalist/public interaction is a “two way street.” If the FAA is going to loosen its regulations for commercial drone use, then drone journalists have an obligation to conduct reporting in a non-disruptive way. The PSDJ’s ethics code is clearly-defined, and it’s obvious that the PSDJ wants the public t0 feel comfortable with news drones in the sky. The more comfortable the public is, the easier it will be to access the full journalistic potential of this technology.
Screen Shot 2015-12-09 at 11.24.22 AM
The ethics pyramid of the PSDJ.

“As far as impact is concerned — that is something we have noticed. American news organizations have fallen behind the rest of the world in developing drone journalism… there’s a lot of innovation going on, [but] it’s just not among the major news organizations who would benefit the most from drone journalism. That is primarily due to the pilot’s license requirement.”

  • Schroyer explains that, without a pilot’s license, it’s pretty much impossible to conduct drone journalism as a big news outlet. The US (a country that partly prides itself on technological innovation) is falling behind simply because of operation rules. In my opinion, this is a ridiculous reason to hinder progress. It makes me wonder how deeply drones would be embedded into journalism today if these rules had never been so strict.


I believe that drone journalism has a promising future. The field is still young, the technology is improving at an impressive rate. 

Amazon (Amazon Prime Air), for example, sees the value in drone use for shipping purposes. They claim they will soon be able to “deliver packages up to five pounds in 30 minutes or less using small drones.” (From

Simultaneously, drone companies like ParrotDJI and Bluefin compete to release new models in fast-growing tech market. This market’s players are fueled to put out the most advanced, most appealing model for the lowest possible price. The more sophisticated and feature-packed the drone model is, the more appealing it will be to potential customers.

Who are these customers? Pretty much anyone with a spare $1,500-$2,000 can be a personal drone owner, including solo journalists. Add a pilot’s license to that price tag, and minor/major news outlets can enter the user base as well.

Perhaps this is where journalism is heading. Perhaps the visual age (which has caused a drastic drop in total journalist jobs) will end up opening doors for journalists with drone experience. Perhaps, far into the future, universities will offer hybrid majors that combine engineering and journalistic practice. Perhaps future graduates will be able to say, “I just got a job at a big news outlet as a drone journalist.” 

I’m confident that drone use in journalism will continue to rise. With an eventual lift on harsh flight restrictions and the help of people like Matthew Schroyer, drone journalism has a chance to flourish.








Final Project Outline: Drone Journalism!

Story idea: How will the use of drones and other unmanned technological recording devices impact the world of journalism in the future?

Oscar Pistorius Is Tried For The Murder Of His Girlfriend Reeva Steenkamp
Image from

Which two media forms will you use?

  1. In addition to my traditional blog post, I will utilize data visualization on the development of drone technology. I’ll include a visually appealing timeline with images of drone prototypes over the years, price points, specs like battery life/recording time, etc.


  1. I’ll also try to conduct a poll with Umich students asking them a few questions about privacy concerns involved with drone journalism. I’ll ask if the pros outweigh the cons and other questions regarding unmanned technologies in use today/future predictions.

Interview ideas?

  • WOODTV8 (news anchors/production team)– my local news station in Grand Rapids. They utilize in-air resources like helicopters already, but the budget for those is fairly large. I can ask them if they’ve thought about using drones and what the pros and cons might be (see questions below).


  • Drone Companies: The people responsible for designing and releasing different drone models.

3 questions you will ask in the interviews?


  1. Have you noticed implementation of unmanned recording devices (specifically drones) in the news today? How effective has it appeared to be so far? What stations have you seen utilize them? Do you have future plans to implement them at WOODTV8?
  2. I know you have a helicopter(s) for aerial coverage, police chases and the like. Do you think using drones would be easier? Or has the technology not come far enough along yet? Is it even possible that, one day, drones will replace human journalists? Does this thought scare you?
  3. Do you think that any privacy issues will arise with the use of drones? As far as journalistic consent goes, what are the current policies and what would have to change if drones were implemented on a regular basis?


To Drone companies:

  1. What do you think about your technology eventually being used for journalistic purposes (if it hasn’t been already)? Does it make you nervous? Do you anticipate public backlash or controversy from news outlets using your product to record video? If so, why?
  2. Do you think drone technology has a stigma society today? Often when I hear of people that own drones, I think of the government and rich people who want to show off. Is this just a stereotype? Who makes your target customer base? Are there plans to expand this target market in the future?
  3. What are your assumptions about drone technology in the next ten years? What areas of society will they be used in besides journalism, simple leisure and the military? Elaborate as much as you can.

Additional info that will be useful:

  • seems like the main resource for contacts and updates regarding the use of drones in the news. There are also plenty of sites that sell drones, and these sites have customer service teams that are more than willing to answer questions related to their products.


  • Sites like focus on the latest technology and post articles on drones all the time. These sites target an audience of early adopters and innovators who value revolutionary new technologies like drones.


  • YouTube videos. Drone reviews, prototype runs and the like are scattered all over YouTube. These videos give us a clear idea of where the technology is currently at and what the future holds.

Environmentalist Profile: Leonardo DiCaprio

Leonardo DiCaprio is known primarily as a Hollywood actor (one that’s still on the hunt for the elusive Oscar award), and because of this, his devoted role as an environmentalist is often overlooked.

Photo from

DiCaprio began his environmentalist efforts in 1998 by founding the LDF (Leonardo DiCaprio Foundation.) It currently supports over 65 organizations and has awarded over $30 million in grants. Its mission is to “support innovative projects that protect vulnerable wildlife from extinction, while restoring balance to threatened ecosystems and communities” (from

Screen Shot 2015-11-28 at 7.56.55 PM
The four areas of LDF’s focus

Leonardo DiCaprio’s personal Instagram page caters its content to this mission. While other celebrities post pictures of themselves in expensive cars and clothes, Leo utilizes his fame to spread awareness about endangered species and sustainability.The page has over 1.7 million followers.

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Appearing as more of a National Geographic-type account than a celebrity one, DiCaprio’s page emphasizes LDF’s mission.

DiCaprio recently hosted a 2nd LDF Gala in St. Tropez, France where he gave a speech and raised $40 million for his foundation. With celebrity connections who are wealthy themselves, DiCaprio has capitalized on the funding opportunities at his disposal.

“I want to get some of the wealthiest people on earth to focus on these issues because it’s becoming pretty dire” says Leo in this interview with Gayle King. For him, it’s not about just “picking a cause” to throw his money at. Environmentalism is a legitimate passion and belief for the actor.

Another significant project DiCaprio involved himself in is Virunga, a documentary about forest rangers in the eastern Congo who regularly risk their lives to protect the last living mountain gorillas. These gorillas are under threat from ecosystem destruction and relentless poaching. Leonardo served as one of the executive producers and teamed up with a crew from Netflix to capture the action.

The film has won over 47 international film awards and is considered one of the most gripping documentaries to be featured on the service. I recently streamed the film and can affirm these claims. You don’t have to consider yourself an environmentalist to get absorbed in the vivid jungle imagery and valor displayed by these rangers. As long as you can recognize the value of species protection, your time with Virunga will be well-spent. Here’s a link to the trailer:

Screen Shot 2015-11-28 at 7.53.56 PM
Photo from the Leonardo DiCaprio Foundation website.

While acting is Leo’s original claim to fame, his environmentalist efforts continue to make significant impacts. His celebrity status serves as a launch pad for his conservationist desires and has enabled him to raise millions towards saving the planet.

Thanksgiving Interview with my Dad

Here’s the interview I recorded with my dad over break. My favorite excerpt is his answer to “What was your earliest memory?” He goes on to describe his experiences watching Saturday morning cartoons and waking his older brother up so they could watch together.

After trying repeatedly to upload my interview and receiving failure error messages from the app, I checked the site to see that it had actually uploaded it multiple times. I was unable to post the excerpt separately after repeated technical difficulties. It seems the app may need work, although for the purpose of crowdsource journalism it was effective enough. IMG_2542

Turning CO2 into Carbon Fibers: Restoring the Damaged Atmosphere

A recent article from gives us a glimpse at a newly discovered chemical process that sucks CO2 from the atmosphere and turns it into carbon fibers and oxygen.

We as a human race have been damaging the atmosphere with carbon emissions for over a century. The surge of the industrial era and subsequent increase of fossil fuel use has brought these emissions to staggering levels.

This graph shows the dramatic rise of carbon emissions since the industrial era began. Source:
This graph shows the dramatic rise of carbon emissions since the industrial era began. Source:

While this sequestering technology may not be able to stop people from using gasoline or other fossil fuels, it can produce nanofibers made of carbon.

So what?

As it turns out, the production of these fibers has multiple advantages, some of which benefit the atmosphere:

  1. Carbon fibers are strong. They’re used for aerospace and industrial construction projects as well as automobile manufacturing. They’re even stronger when interwoven on a microscopic (nano) scale. This new process can yield nano-scale fibers.
  2. Carbon fibers are lightweight. Whether you’re trying to get a rocket into space or take advantage of increased fuel efficiency on the highway, carbon fibers can lighten your load without compromising strength.
  3. Carbon fibers are conductive. On a nano scale, even more so.
A microscope photo of carbon nanofibers sequestered by this new process. Source:
A microscope photo of carbon nanofibers sequestered by this new process. Source:

Manufacturing potential aside, it’s important to note that by existing in nanofibers, the sequestered carbon can no longer exist in the air. It cannot damage our ozone layer. It cannot further encourage global climate change. It is simply sucked out and converted to a solid material.

The process itself is somewhat technical, but is more stable, less expensive, and more useful than other carbon fiber production methods. Lithium oxide is first dissolved in lithium carbonate. It then combines with atmospheric CO2. Running voltage through this combination yields O2, carbon and more lithium oxide. The process can then repeat.

A final, staggering statistic: using this method on a larger scale could “remove enough carbon dioxide to make global atmospheric levels return to pre-industrial levels within 10 years, even if we keep emitting the greenhouse gas at a high rate during that period.” – Mike Orcutt, writer for Technology Review.

This means that we could see the current spike in the emissions graph descend back to levels observed in around 1900. 100+ years of damage could be reversed in under a decade.

Demand doesn’t yet seem high enough to put this new technology into practice, but it breathes hope into the concept of a restored atmosphere. This is our planet, after all. We have been damaging it. Now we have another tool to fix it.

A short video from Discovery Channel explaining the process: 

Data Visualization: CoolClimate’s Interactive Carbon Footprint Map

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Pictures taken from

CoolClimate, an environmentalist network at the University of California, Berkley, has created a series of ongoing projects that emphasize a reduction of carbon emissions on various scales. Their site focuses on visual appeal and features polished, immersive interfaces for users to experiment with. Site visitors can compare their individual/household emissions, toy around with the site’s interactive maps, and ultimately educate themselves about how the US is contributing to climate change.

The site’s homepage lists the network’s current projects. These are all interactive to some degree and emphasize data visualization.
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While exploring the site I discovered CoolClimate’s Interactive Carbon Footprint Map. It allows the user to see how many metric tons of CO2 an average household emits per year for any given US county. Users can pair this data with their individual carbon footprint results to see if they emit more or less carbon than average.

I found this visualization to be extremely effective. Zooming, panning and comparing colored map pieces was much more entertaining than reading a list of figures; it also gave me a better image of the damage we are doing to our atmosphere. The areas with less emissions show up green, the areas with more appear red. We as viewers can immediately notice which areas of the US are controlling their emissions and which areas need to reduce them. All we need to do is use the colors.  

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Notice the emissions breakdown on the right of the map. It shows where the emissions are coming from for the selected county(transportation, housing, food, etc.).
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As the user zooms in, individual counties become more visible and clusters of high-emission areas emerge.

     Although this data has been carefully collected by county and assembled in a user-friendly way, there is still room for improvement on this map. Users can’t search for counties, they can only zoom in and float their cursor over them to observe the data. White areas on the map represent counties CoolClimate does not yet have data for (western states like Utah are missing a lot of data).

Despite these negative aspects, we can consider the map a mostly-complete work in progress. It allows users to easily observe carbon footprints by county and compare their own footprints. Not only did I leave the site more educated on the magnitude of US carbon emissions, but I also left with a desire to reduce my own footprint. This was CoolClimate’s purpose for using data visualization and, at least for me, it proved effective.

A Half Hour With CBSN: A Review and Comparison to NPR One

My half hour on CBSN’s website was informative and provocative, despite some of the formatting mishaps and design issues I encountered. I’ll begin with some likes and dislikes of the content itself.


Positives + :

  • I found CBSN’s footage of events and coverage to be pretty incredible. Before I began the live stream, I experimented with the side bar and the mini-stories found there. I saw brief footage of a tornado ripping up buildings. I saw a video of a bombing in Ankara, Turkey during a peaceful protest. Both of these appeared cinematic (even fake) and I was glad that I would backstream so I could confirm what I just saw. Also, high intensity action wasn’t the only footage. Often times the images were moving in other ways (one story featured a close-up shot of George Bush Sr. throwing the first pitch at an MLB game). I expect nothing less of a national news organization. Still, it’s good to see that they didn’t settle for less-than-ideal footage.

    Screen Shot 2015-10-12 at 7.56.06 AM
    This photo and others courtesy of
  • Another big one: interviews and guests. This 2-minute spot on a kickstarter campaign  to help Syrian refugees features the CEO and co-founder of kickstarter. The story also said that kickstarter raised over $1 Million in 24 hours in its first ever nonprofit campaign. Another story features Barack Obama and clips from his most recent 60 minutes interview. Although it’s only a preview of the full episode, it shows some heated discussions and Obama defending himself from the host over failed training of soldiers. I think CBS and I would agree that presidential coverage in the news is rarely a bad move. Most people (including myself) care about how their country is being run to some degree. (CBS also features the full 60 Minutes interview on their site).Screen Shot 2015-10-12 at 7.56.36 AM

Negatives – :

  • Some of the stories presented did not appeal to me or apply to me. One that repeatedly came up focused on a mysterious computer glitch in the Southwest Airlines system. Most of the interviews were from impatient, waiting passengers. I have never flown Southwest and haven’t been on a plane in a few years, so the issue doesn’t concern me personally; however, I have to admit that this is a national issue and should be covered. I found myself wishing that I could sift through stories like these, but the site offers little customization (more about this in the formatting section). Screen Shot 2015-10-12 at 8.04.16 AM
  • Before the live stream began, I was forced to watch a short titled “Your World in 90 Seconds.” I had to watch this after I had already watched 90+ seconds of off-air text highlighting upcoming stories. This feature might have been useful if I wanted to see only the provocative material: explosions, bold statements and quick facts. Unfortunately, these are the only thing the short featured. Most of the dialogue was taken out of context and didn’t help me get a grasp of what the stories were about. I also couldn’t find a way to re-watch this short segment.

    This screen appeared when CBS prepared for the next live segment. Although it's not as awful as a 90 second ad or a blank screen, I still found it irritating
    This screen appeared when CBS prepared for the next live segment. Although it’s not as awful as a 90 second ad or a blank screen, I still found it irritating.

Format:  In terms of how the website looks and functions, I would say this: It gets the job done. It works. But it’s not perfect.

Positives + :

  • I didn’t experience streaming issues. Load times were quick.
  • Stories were varied in terms of categories (disasters, politics, international and domestic stories, covers a range of issues). I was able to rewatch stories that I enjoyed or didn’t fully grasp on the first playthrough.
  • Incorporation of the “share” function on every story. You can instantly post a story to facebook or twitter with your own caption (or simply copy+paste the html link).
  • Very few ads (although I have an ad blocker installed). The only one I saw was a brief “sponsored by Toyota” ad before the live segment began.
  • The “Related videos” feature was actually useful. Sometimes 4-5 stories were featured as follow ups.

Negatives – :

  • Little organization of the sidebar. I couldn’t easily filter categories to find news that interests me.
  • Screen Shot 2015-10-12 at 8.06.23 AMWhen you pause a video, this appears^. You cant scroll through stories. You can’t view the screen or utilize any of the modules. You can’t do anything. The huge play button is obnoxious and as soon as you click it, the whole page reloads and you have to rebuffer the video.
  • Whenever the live stream took a 90 second break, I would try to sneak in a story or two from the side bar so as to not waste my time. Unfortunately, most of the stories run about 2 to 2 and a half minutes, meaning that after I watched the sidebar story, I’d have to rewind/rebuffer the live stream and find the beginning.

Comparison to NPR One:

In terms of functionality/interface and customizability of stories, I think these two outlets are evenly matched. NPR One could use some work in development of category selection (rather than just “interested” or “skip”). CBSN could use a filter option to help users get news from the areas they care about. Both interfaces have bugs that will probably get worked out with time. Hopefully we’ll see the end of the obnoxious play button on CBSN and some of the semi-useless pages in the NPR One app.

In terms of content, I preferred CBSN. I enjoyed the combination of audio+video much more than audio alone. I was able to put faces to names. In the case of the kickstarter CEO (Yancey Strickler) interview, he was shown at his office and in his work environment. I could easily understand what his motives are and how his company functions.

Also, having video content enables CBSN to do things like this: Screen Shot 2015-10-12 at 8.03.56 AM

We get a photo tweet from the LA Airport Police. While the anchor is commentating, we can read the tweet and view the picture. If this were on NPR One, the tweet would have to be read out loud and the audience wouldn’t be able to see the photo.

I would put NPR One and CBSN in two different categories of news outlets. NPR One seems like more of a casual listening/multitasking app while CBSN seems to be a “sit down, pay attention and watch provocative news” site. I would finally argue that CBSN focuses more on shocking/moving content while NPR One serves to be more informative.

If I had to personally choose between the two, I’d choose NPR One. I find its convenience to be its biggest asset.