When Journalists Have Drones

Communications researchers explore the scope and consequences of using unmanned aircraft as news-gathering tools.

National Journal

A journalist's tool kit is usually pretty simple. In my backpack, at least, you can usually find a notebook, pen, voice recorder, and a laptop. Basic instruments of recording. Occasionally, I'll bring a camera to supplement my iPhone. But the more I look into it, the more it becomes apparent: Soon, I may need a drone, and a bigger backpack.

We have come to use the term "drone" to describe two entirely different things that, while sharing a basic premise, are nothing alike. There are the unmanned aerial vehicles that fly at very high altitudes in the name of international espionage or the annihilation of targets with Hellfire missiles. Then, there are the remote-controlled copters you can buy on Amazon (which is not to demean them. Over-the-counter drones can be very sophisticated, being controlled by iPhone and flying a few hundred feet in the air). In a newly published paper in the journal Digital Journalism, University of Texas (Arlington) communications researchers are surely talking about the latter.

The paper seeks to establish the scope and consequences of using remote-controlled planes as news-gathering devices. As it stands, flying drones are not a widely used technology in newsrooms. Through an exhaustive search of Google News, Lexis-Nexis, and other news archives, the authors found eight concrete examples of how drones have been used in journalism. And the uses are as varied as the scope of crafts that fall under the term "drone."

Here are a few examples:

  • In 2010, paparazzi flew a camera-plane to snag shots of Paris Hilton when she was vacationing on the French Riviera.

  • The Australian 60 Minutes used a drone to obtain footage of a secretive island prison.

  • A citizen-journalist deployed a drone to conduct a citizen-inspection of a meatpacking plant and discovered animal blood being poured into a river.

  • A drone was used to provide aerial coverage of the Occupy Wall Street protests.

There are laws governing the current journalist toolbox. Depending on which state I'm calling, it can be illegal to record a phone conversation without the other party's consent. The laws concerning drone reporting are less clear. The Federal Aviation Administration says you do not need approval to fly a model aircraft 400 feet above the ground, but they "should be flown a sufficient distance from populated areas and full-scale aircraft, and are not for business purposes," which is a tricky line for news outlets, which are businesses. The late The Daily had a feature called the "The Daily Drone," which spurred an FAA investigation.

Lawsuits are sure to happen if journalists start prying harder from the skies. The Paris Hiltons of the world do have a right not to be spied upon, no matter how valuable the photos of them are. Meatpacking plants, which are already protected by photography ban laws, won't like it either.

The University of Nebraska (Lincoln) has a Drone Journalism Lab on campus, which investigates "how drones can be used for reporting." On its website, it highlights a video of how a drone can be used to collect a water sample. It isn't hard to imagine an intrepid reporter flying a drone over a factory's fences and doing the same. Which brings up a good point: Drones will likely be used to gather information that others won't want journalists to have.

"A prominent theme of drone journalism usage was anti-authoritarianism," the authors of the paper wrote. "Many of the cases involved aerial footage of either anti-government protests or secretive government activities." And it is also a new venture that the "citizen journalist" can contribute to. "In several cases, citizens armed with this new technology were capturing images they probably considered unlikely to see on the nightly news. So they obtained the video themselves and put it on the Internet."

This progression is not unlike what happened with the proliferation of camera phones. Camera-phone reporting is ubiquitous, and even essential to events like the Boston Marathon bombing (though there were many abuses of the technology there). If consumer drones catch on, more footage of events from above will circulate on the Web. "As previous research on surveillance technologies has suggested, UAVs equipped with cameras will further blur the public"“private distinctions understood by earlier eras," the author's suggest. Though it is seems now that domestic drones are in the realm of hobbyists, and won't proliferate like cellphones did.

The Society of Professional Drone Journalists (yep, that exists), propose a pyramid to prioritize what should be taken into account when a reporter wants to use a drone. I'd say these are more or less steps to consider when reporting on any story (though "traditional journalism ethics" should be more of an all-encompassing bubble).

1) NEWSWORTHINESS. The investigation must be of sufficient journalistic importance to risk using a potentially harmful aerial vehicle. Do not use a drone if the information can be gathered by other, safer means.

2) SAFETY. A drone operator must first be adequately trained in the operation of his or her equipment. The equipment itself must be in a condition suitable for safe and controlled flight. Additionally, the drone must not be flown in weather conditions that exceed the limits of the drone's ability to operate safely, and it must be flown in a manner that ensures the safety of the public.

3) SANCTITY OF LAW AND PUBLIC SPACES. A drone operator must abide by the regulations that apply to the airspace where the drone is operated whenever possible. An exception to this is provided in instances where journalists are unfairly blocked from using drones to provide critical information in accordance with their duties as members of the fourth estate. The drone must be operated in a manner which is least disruptive to the general population in a public setting.

4) PRIVACY. The drone must be operated in a fashion that does not needlessly compromise the privacy of nonpublic figures. If at all possible, record only images of activities in public spaces, and censor or redact images of private individuals in private spaces that occur beyond the scope of the investigation.

5) TRADITIONAL ETHICS. As outlined by professional codes of conduct for journalists.