Friday, August 05, 2016

Tough pilot requirements, other concerns will slow growth of drone journalism, expert says

By Al Cross
Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues

MINNEAPOLIS -- The use of drones for journalism is likely to be limited mainly to large news organizations for a while because of the requirements for a license to pilot unmanned aircraft, and adoption may be slow, an expert in the field said during a session at the national journalism educators' convention Thursday.

University of Nebraska professor Matt Waite with drones
Matt Waite, a journalism professor at the University of Nebraska, said he sees "a culture of caution in newsrooms," which don't want to be test cases in an area of law that remains largely untested by courts. He said unmanned aircraft are "a gray area a lot of media attorneys are uncomfortable with."

Waite is holding an overbooked "bootcamp" next weekend to prepare about 60 would-be drone pilots for the Federal Aviation Administration exam. He said the test material includes "a lot of minutiae" that are unrelated to unmanned aircraft. "It is a lot of stuff, and I'm afraid it is going to chase off too many journalists."

But he said as more organizations use drones and an insurance market for them is stabilized, that will encourage more usage. The images available are amazing, said Katie Culver, a professor of journalism ethics at the University of Wisconsin.

Culver said that in debates over drones, news organizations haven't been as aggressive as they should be in speaking up for their First Amendment right to gather news and information.

Waite, Culver and Jacksonville University journalism professor Courtney Barclay appeared at the annual convention of the Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communications in Minneapolis. They discussed not only the legalities surrounding unmanned aircraft, but the ethics.

"Ethics has to start with safety," Waite said, noting that the recently issued federal regulations prohibit flying drones over people.

Culver said she fears many newsrooms will "default to technological determinism" and do what the technology allows, limiting their ethical thinking to possible consequences: What happens if X happens? She said newsrooms are aware of privacy concerns but tend to think of them more in legal terms than ethical terms, and many are more concerned about "getting what is interesting to the public rather than what's in the public interest."

An important question, Culver said, is "What are drones going to do to our credibility as journalists?" She said there is "pretty widely documented public suspicion of civilian drones," with about two-thirds of the population saying they will make things worse and one-third expecting better.

Culver suggested that news organizations follow the example of the Gannett Co. newspapers in Wisconsin and discuss the issue with "focus groups" of citizens.

Waite said most people probably don't know that anyone can legally take and publish a picture of anyone on a street, but state laws may eventually prohibit such photography or video from unmanned aircraft below a 500-foot altitude. "It's important for journalists to understand that use of that technology may be transformative in the public's mind."

Jane Kirtley of the University of Minnesota, moderator of the panel, said some state "ag-gag" laws designed to shield agricultural operations from public scrutiny have been extended to include drones.

Waite said, "Agriculture is talking out of both sides of sides of their mouth," wanting few restrictions on drones for farming but blocking others from flying over farms without permission, as was attempted in the Nebraska legislature.

He said agriculture is much more important to the unmanned-aircraft industry than journalism is: "I've often described journalism as the bug speck on the windshield when it comes to drones."

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