Wolfgang, David, The Quill
Unmanned aircraft could soon get their debut as the newest journalistic tool, raising new legal and ethical issues related to privacy and newsgathering. But as journalists start to ask questions about how to legally and ethically fly drones, the Federal Aviation Administration is already behind schedule on instituting a new regulatory system for commercial drone use.
Despite slow movement from the federal government, some non-profit journalism organizations and journalism students at a pair of universities have had the first crack at developing drones. That has meant professionalizing what some see as a whole new skill set or even a newsroom title: drone journalist. The types of drones, or unmanned aircraft systems, that are finding their ways into the journalist's toolkit are typically equipped with a camera and are flown at low heights in order to gain new perspectives on a news story.
The use of drones in journalism was rather obscure until the rumor that gossip website TMZ was looking to get a drone and authorization to fly from the FAA in November 2012. The mere rumor that TMZ might be considering a drone was enough to raise ire, even though the FAA is not issuing commercial licenses. While drones have great potential to help journalists cover disasters such as floods, tornadoes and hurricanes, they also make it easier to keep tabs on celebrities and public figures. And if traditional news organizations like NPR member stations and newspapers get access to drones, it will ultimately mean gossip blogs and celebrity sites will also have access. And until the FAA releases new regulations as soon as 2015, it will be up to non-commercial journalists to establish professional standards.
"Whatever laws the government or the courts come up with, they will be laws that will protect TMZ and The New York Times, and there is no way of getting around that," increasing the need for journalists to self-regulate the use of drones, said Kelly McBride, a media ethicist with the Poynter Institute.
FINDING A USE IN JOURNALISM
The use of drones for journalism is still new; just two university journalism programs are testing them. And the FAA could slow down the introduction of commercial drones even more as Congress starts to question the use of domestic drones.
'This is democracy in action," said Matt Waite, professor of journalism and mass communication at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and founder of the Drone Journalism Lab. "People are concerned about this, and frankly I think they should be. I think you should be worried about your privacy from a lot of perspectives."
Because so few journalists have the opportunity to work with drones, and legislators are showing increased scrutiny, Waite and others testing the technology are using extreme caution with how they use drones.
'We have a responsibility to be very careful for a lot of reasons. I don't want to do anything that would prevent journalists in the future from using these for a useful purpose," Waite said.
Drone journalist Matthew Schroyer recognizes the need to be responsible with the devices in order to protect the next generation of journalists, but he also believes that the benefits of using drones should not be outweighed by unnecessary caution.
'You have to walk a fine line - you don't want the technology to be abused or intrusive to privacy, but at the same time journalists are trying to report on important events and inform democracy," Schroyer said. "So anything you do to inhibit a journalist's ability to report on information in the public's interest is a negative."
A WAITING GAME
Even journalism students using drones have to work under FAA regulations, and those rules end up having significant effects on the type of journalism produced. In order to fly drones without having an exploratory license from the FAA, journalists have to work under a hobbyist regulatory system developed in 1981 for model airplane pilots. …