Journalists: good early drone adopters

Professional journalists could use drones, but a code of ethics must be devised.

"Put a drone in the hands of a serious journalist and I'll argue that you have an ideal early adopter of the technology," writes Matthew Waite [Al Jazeera]

The recent news that Amazon plans to use mini-drones to fly small packages to consumers in just 30 minutes raised an important question: what could a journalist do with a small drone? The simple straighforward answer is that they can get a perspective on a news event that would currently cost thousands of dollars to get and do it quickly.

One of the most consistent questions, however, which kept coming up when I started researching the use of drones for journalism at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, was about the paparazzi. What happens when they get drones? What can stop hordes of prying robots? And when are you going to spy on the Kardashians?

I’m not conflating paparazzi with journalism. There’s a difference between journalism that is attempting to inform the public and crass exploitation of celebrity for money. But make no mistake, both are going to be using drones in the near future. In several places around the world they already are. And both paparazzi and journalists could have significant impacts on the future of drones in our skies.

Before I get into that, let me define some terms.

Most people when they hear the term drone, think of military machines. I am not talking about those. I am talking about small devices – smaller than 5 kilograms – that fly less than 100 metres in the air, generally carry a camera, and don’t fly for very long. There are huge questions about those military-style drones – I’m not qualified to answer them.

Tweeting and posting to YouTube are acts of publication as much as printing the morning paper or airing the nightly newscast.

News gathering in flight

But I have been researching how to use small platforms to do journalism for the past two years. Even the word drone is controversial. Activists use it almost as a swear word. Industry hates it because it carries negative connotations, but it also terribly undersells the sophistication of the system and the importance of the humans involved in it.

The media hasn’t helped. Journalists have labelled everything from a four-rotored device the size of the palm of your hand, to the gigantic $130m Global Hawk a drone. It’s quite a stretch to call both by the same name. It makes the term almost meaningless.

So back to the question of what can journalists do with the drone.Think about the events unfolding in the Phillipines right now. A journalist with a small drone could, just by flying 50-100 metres straight up, give viewers or readers a small window into the vastness of the destruction.

But it’s not just massive disasters where a flying camera would be useful. We used a small UAV to cover a record-breaking drought in Nebraska, with video. That story also got us a letter from the Federal Aviation Administration telling us to get permission from them, or stop.

And that’s where drone journalism stands right now, caught between technology that makes it possible and rules that keep it from happening. The rules for anyone – not just journalists – wanting to use UAVs are pretty restrictive. In the US, the use of UAVs for anyone, other than the government or hobbyists, is banned. Even for those groups, use is severely restricted. It’s less restrictive in the UK, Canada and several countries in the EU, but operators cannot fly in cities and only below certain altitudes.

Drones in safe hands?

As drones get closer to the skies, questions are emerging about safety, privacy and ethics. What kind of restrictions should there be? What can people expect in terms of their personal privacy? And just because we can, should we?
Put drones in the hands of the paparazzi and I agree with most people’s discomfort. But put a drone in the hands of a serious journalist and I’ll argue that you have an ideal early adopter of the technology, one that can help guide society into a post-drone world, where flying robots large and small become vastly more commonplace.

My argument breaks down like this: First, journalism by its simplified nature is about publishing. It’s about making what the journalist knows, public. So anything a journalist does with a drone is going to be published at some point. There’s almost zero value in a journalist gathering information that they’ll never use, so the public will get to see what the drone sees.

Professional journalists could make good early adopters of drones for all the reasons stated.

Second, that act of publishing carries with it enormous pressures. Now, to be clear, I am using the word publish here, but I mean it in the broadest of definitions. Tweeting and posting to YouTube are acts of publication as much as printing the morning paper or airing the nightly newscast. So there are factors that any news organisation has to consider when publishing. Are we on solid legal ground publishing this? Are we on solid ethical grounds? Are we going to needlessly harm someone by publishing? Is our conduct going to enrage our audience? Decisions that would be made gathering data, video or photos with drones would be made through this prism.

Third, that prism is made largely of standards of ethics that most journalists adhere to most of the time. I do not pretend that all journalism is done with the highest of ethical intentions. Nor do I pretend that there is one All Powerful code of ethics that all journalists follow. In fact, multiple journalism organisations have their own codes of ethics, and even individual companies maintain their own. The Society of Professional Journalist’s Code of Ethics tells journalists to seek truth and report it, minimise harm and be accountable. The National Press Photographers Association Code of Ethics talks about treating subjects with dignity and respect. There are dozens of other examples of codes of ethics. 

Moral and ethical code

I’m not claiming that these codes of ethics are all perfect or deal with drones specifically. My point is that they exist. And many of them would easily apply to drones without much creativity. And there is broad agreement that professional journalism is ethical journalism.

Compare that to a private security company or a data mining company doing proprietary work for clients whose names they won’t disclose, using operating procedures you can’t read. Journalists, by doing their jobs, will make what they’re doing public, and will follow standards of ethical practice while doing it.

Do I think journalists won’t make mistakes? No. Do I think voluntary ethics codes means there should be no regulations? Not hardly, and paparazzi are why I believe that.

But I am saying professional journalists could make good early adopters of drones for all the reasons stated. You could do a lot worse than to start with a group of people who want to make what they do with drones visible to all, and have an established tradition of ethical practice.

Matt Waite is a professor of practice at the College of Journalism and Mass Communications at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and the founder of the Drone Journalism Lab.