The Legality of Drone Journalism

In 2013/2014 Archives

Amazon’s Jeff Bezos isn’t the only one with drones on the brain. Journalists are increasingly using drones to report on everything from the disastrous typhoon in the Philippines to the recent protests in Moscow to a New Year’s Day Polar Bear Plunge. The latter was the subject of some twitter chatter this week questioning “drone journalism” and the legality of using unmanned aircraft as journalistic tools.

Via Poynter, on Wednesday, The Spokesman-Review newspaper published a video of the annual Polar Bear Plunge filmed by photographer Jesse Tinsley using a radio-controlled helicopter and small camera. Naturally the video found it way to Twitter, prompting an employee of PBS NewsHour to question the legality of “drone journalism.” You can read the exchange at Poynter.

So what’s the deal? Is it legal for journalists to use drones to report a story? The Federal Aviation Administration has no official rules regarding unmanned aircraft systems (UAS), however, Congress has called for the FAA to establish such regulations by 2015. The lack of regulations hasn’t stopped the FAA from shutting down journalism school programs using drones for aerial reporting.

It isn’t difficult to understand the draw of drone technology as a reporting tool for journalists. Drones would allow them to collect imagery and information from a safe distance, offering the potential of better storytelling. As peculiar as it sounds, if we look at the role technology has played in breaking news whether it was 8 mm film capturing the Kennedy assassination, or motion picture with sound bringing the Vietnam War into our homes or satellites and Internet showing us the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan in real-time, drone technology as a reporting tool doesn’t seem that far fetched.

Of course if drones are allowed to fly around and capture anything, anytime, anywhere, this would open up a huge can of privacy worms. With so much of our personal privacy already surrendered, is this last bit of privacy worth handing over for news with a panoramic view?