Drone journalism taking flight

Last week, The New York Times let readers suggest names for its new drone. The announcement that the nation’s premier newspaper would engage in drone journalism came after the Federal Aviation Administration approved a measure that would allow CNN to use drones as a news reporting tool.

Apparently, the Times is part of a coalition of ten media organizations working with Virginia Tech to test the use of drones during news gathering. For many news outlets, drones would be a more cost-effective alternative to helicopters.

As someone who hopes to be in news management one day, I can appreciate the need to make the transition to drone reporting as a cost-savings tool. I also think drones could provide further protection for journalists in combat zones. To me, the use of drones in journalism should be governed by the following ethics:

  • Drones should only be used if there isn’t a safer way to gather the information. With so many tales of drone crashes, it’s important that editors and publish understand the risks of sending a drone out for information.
  • Drones shouldn’t be used to capture images of private people in non-public spaces. This principle is something reporters and editors would hopefully adopt in a lot of other journalism codes of ethics, and it shouldn’t be abandoned simply because it’s easier to gather this type of information with the unmanned aerial vehicle.
  • Finally, the drone should only be operated by someone with proper training and knowledge. This seems like a no-brainer, but, again, there have been cases where journalists with little experience have crashed drones.

Dronejournalism.org has crafted a primitive code of ethics for news organizations to borrow and personalize regarding the use of drones in newsrooms.

The folks over at the Drone Journalism Lab are adamant the Federal Aviation Administration’s decision earlier this month doesn’t mean newspapers will use drones anytime soon, but they do say it gets the ball rolling on the legislative process.

As the FAA begins to craft laws for drones, it’s important for journalists to have a role in these discussions. The Drone Journalism Lab gave an excellent example of how the new technology could end up hurting the quality of journalism if it gets into the wrong hands:

So while we’re researching this, how about we look into punishing those who would see to abuse the First Amendment? How do we stop someone from using hard-won rights to cover their objectionable actions? This is an old problem, but now it flies. And, to make it worse, it can fly on it’s own. A (paparazzi) could claim it was on autopilot when it caught the celebrity streaking their back yard. It wasn’t him, it was the drone. 

The potential for this kind of situation is high. Just as we need codes of ethics, we’ll needs laws that govern the use of drones as a reporting tool just as we have laws that govern the use of wire taps and recording. But the Federal Aviation Administration will have to act quickly if it hopes to have any permanent effect on how drones are used in reporting.

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