Drone Journalism Poised for Full Take-Off

Should media organizations enjoy a First Amendment right to conduct news gathering with drones?  Most observers would say yes.  But balancing that right with the rights of citizens to privacy has sparked enormous debate. To date, 9 states, including Florida, Idaho and Montana, have passed laws regulating and in many cases sharply restricting the drone activities of media organizations; another 39 states are considering their own laws.  Most news gathering activities – such as rush-hour traffic reporting – are non-controversial.  But others, including reporting on ongoing police investigations or potential criminal activity or capturing video or citizens and their homes and property without their permission raise more serious ethical and legal issues.

Two universities in the Midwest  – the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and the University Of Missouri – have established fledgling “drone journalism” programs to formally study the issue.  There is also a membership association, the Professional Society of Drone Journalists (PSDJ), that defends and promotes the drone activities of news organizations.  PSDJ has also begun promulgating best practices as well as voluntary standards to guide the burgeoning field.

Students at the University of Nebraska have done more than just study or reflect on drones for course credit: they’ve actually built a few.  Under the guidance of their professor, they’ve also launched a number of drone-based news-gathering projects.  For example, students have reported on a drought in Nebraska by taking aerial video; they’ve even collected water samples with their UAV’s.

The impetus for drone journalism first came from executive actions taken by the Obama administration.  In 2012 President Obama signed the FAA Air Transportation Modernization and Safety Improvement Act which directed the FAA to create a new regulatory framework to govern commercial drone expansion.  When the FAA published its guidelines in late 2015,  news organizations quickly set about figuring out how to employ drones to reduce their reliance on journalists on the beat, thereby substantially reducing the time and cost of news gathering.

The prospective “added value” of drone journalism is undeniable.  As many news organizations have cut back on staff, especially those devoted to investigative reporting in the field, drones have literally flown into the void.  In many cases, private drone hobbyists – adopting the mantle of “citizen journalists”” – are leading the way.  For example,  in 2011, a Texas hobbyist flew his unmanned aerial vehicle with a camera over a Columbia meatpacking plant outside Dallas and managed to capture evidence that the company was illegally dumping pig blood into a nearby river.  When the drone enthusiast turned his video over to environmental regulators, the company was prosecuted and forced to close.

Pushing the boundaries of what’s acceptable to investigate and report on is what journalists do, media advocates say; it’s all part of the public’s “right to know.”   But drone critics worry that overzealous media exposure could lead to unwarranted and even un-Constitutional intrusions, including civil rights abuses.  As the debate continues to evolve, and more states contemplate new regulatory guidelines, one thing is certain:  in the field of journalism, as in so many others, drones are here to stay.

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