Drone journalism

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Drone journalism is the use of drones, or unmanned aircraft systems (UAS), for journalistic purposes. According to the FAA, "an unmanned aircraft is a device that is used, or is intended to be used, for flight in the air with no onboard pilot".[1][2]

The use of drones for information collection in the journalism industry is still new. Two university journalism programs are testing drones in this context, namely the Drone Journalism Lab, founded in late November 2011 by Matt Waite, professor of journalism and mass communication at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln,[3] and the Drone Journalism Program at the University of Missouri.[4] On June 2014, the London Evening Standard published a story by Nimrod Kamer on latest drone journalism attempts.[5]

US legal framework[edit]

The Federal Aviation Administration, which regulates airspace over the US, has yet to establish rules for integrating UAS into the National Airspace System (NAS), though Congress has called for the FAA to establish such regulations by 2015. Currently, legislation on commercial unmanned aviation, including for use in commercial media, is at a standstill. The FAA allows government entities' use of UAS on a case-by-case basis, via a Certificate of Authorization (COA); however, this option is unavailable to the general public. The FAA does allow hobbyists to operate model aircraft, including remotely or autonomously controlled craft, under Advisory Circular 91-57, which stipulates that these aircraft never fly above 400 feet or within 2 miles of an airport.[6]

With regard to general UAS, the FAA stipulates in official policy, "The current FAA policy for UAS operations is that no person may operate a UAS in the National Airspace System without specific authority. For UAS operating as public aircraft the authority is the COA, for UAS operating as civil aircraft the authority is special airworthiness certificates, and for model aircraft the authority is AC 91-57." [6] AC 91-57 only applies to recreational model aircraft operators, and thus specifically excludes its use by persons or companies for business purposes.[7]

In February 2013, the FAA developed a domestic drone test site program that will establish six test sites for the use of drones under an expanded privacy regulatory system. Those using drones within the test sites will have to develop a privacy policy on how they will collect and use information, and will agree to follow local, state, and federal privacy laws, or face additional penalties from the FAA.[8]

Twenty-nine states have begun the process of establishing regulations on UAS. The majority of these regulations restrict law enforcement from using unmanned systems without a search warrant. Several states are seeking to ban photography of private properties, or to forbid drone technology altogether. In New Hampshire, for example, aerial photography of private property, including photos obtained via satellite, has been banned. It is not yet clear if or to what extent state regulation of UAS will carry weight at the federal level, considering the Supreme Court's recognition of the FAA's regulatory authority over the NAS.[6]

Key players[edit]

Because drone journalism is such a new topic of debate, the key players (outside of legislative and decision-making bodies such as the FAA) in this debate play particularly large roles in the media public sphere.

Matt Waite founded the University of Nebraska-Lincoln's Drone Journalism Lab to explore how drones can be used for reporting. More specifically, the lab's purpose is to provide a place for the study of the ethicality, legality, and practicality of drone use in journalism.[9] The lab's website plays a key role in the drone journalism debate, as it provides an online discussion platform, as well as links to and analysis of research and news articles.

Matthew Schroyer is a drone and data journalist based in Urbana, Illinois, and blogger on drone journalism at MentalMuniton.com, and founder of the Professional Society of Drone Journalists (PSDJ), located at DroneJournalism.org. He currently develops drone technology and small unmanned aerial vehicles (sUAV) for use in journalistic ventures. As part of his work on EnLiST, a National Science Foundation grant at the University of Illinois, Schroyer heads the "Drones for Schools" program, through which high school students learn engineering design and STEM concepts for the building and operating of their own unmanned aerial vehicles for photomapping.[10]

Scott Pham is the founder and director of the Missouri Drone Journalism Program, a partnership between the Missouri School of Journalism, the University of Missouri Information Technology Program, and NPR member station KBIA. Pham is also the Content Director for KBIA.org.[11]

Ethics considerations[edit]

A significant concern with the use of UAS for journalistic reporting is the potential for invading people's privacy, such as unobstructed views of individuals and private property. A crucial question is whether individuals have the right to expect privacy when their picture is being taken from hundreds of miles above the ground. Furthermore, the ethics considerations surrounding satellite images come into play: What are the ethical boundaries of news-gathering from satellites in space?[12]

On April 3, 2013, the FAA held an "engagement session" on drone privacy, in which the public could engage in discussion on such questions of privacy.[13] Opinions expressed during the session can generally be summarized in five overarching concerns:

  • privacy risks (use of drones should be tightly regulated and subject to transparency procedures)
  • mission creep (some were worried about the introduction of drones into US airspace would lead to growing use of increasingly advanced drone technology in policing operations)
  • opposition to government regulations on citizens' rights to own drones
  • safety hazards (unmanned aircraft pose safety risks to manned aircraft)
  • drones as the future of aviation and an overblown preoccupation with privacy and safety concerns.[14]

With discussion of drone use for journalistic reasons increasing in the public sphere, non-commercial journalists will be responsible for establishing professional standards, as it is possible that the FAA will not release new regulations until 2015.[8] Waite and Schroyer both hold that existing journalistic ethics codes can apply to drones, as the principles behind these ethics codes are broad. In an article in the Society of Professional Journalists' Quill Magazine, Waite is paraphrased as saying that he approaches ethical questions of drone journalism by first checking to see whether a question has been dealt with before, as many of questions in drone journalism debates have already been raised with regard to journalistic use of telephoto lenses and helicopters. The article quotes Waite, "We keep asking ourselves: Is this a new ethical problem, or an old ethical problem with new technology?"[8]

In an effort to professionalize the journalistic practice of using drones, Schroyer and the members of DroneJournalism.org are seeking to create a drone journalism code of ethics, including appeals for use of drones only when there is no safer method of procuring the information needed. This code does hold, however, that violation of state laws and FAA regulations may be necessary in order to access critical information.[8]


  • In July 2014, Nimrod Kamer travelled to Nassau with a drone to investigate a leak by Edward Snowden that suggested the NSA are listening to phone calls made in the Bahamas. He spoke with local ministers, parliament members and attended a local Freedom of Information rally.[15][16]
  • The Daily Dot used a Phantom drone for first hand footage of a building that collapsed in Harlem on March 2014.[17]


  1. ^ "Unmanned Aircraft Operations in the National Airspace System". Federal Aviation Administration. 
  2. ^ Corcoran, Mark (February 21, 2012). "Drone journalism takes off". ABC Online. Retrieved 19 May 2013. 
  3. ^ Janik, Rachel; Mitchell Armentrout (April 29, 2013). "WASHINGTON: Industry looks to use drones for commercial purposes". Columbus Ledger Enquirer. Retrieved 19 May 2013. 
  4. ^ Le Pavous, Joël (May 17, 2013). "L'envol du journalisme". Le Monde (in French). Retrieved 19 May 2013. 
  5. ^ "Evening Standard". 
  6. ^ a b c "US Laws and Regulations". 
  7. ^ "Docket No. FAA-2006-25714 Unmanned Aircraft Operations in the National Airspace System". Federal Aviation Administration. February 6, 2007. Retrieved 2014-05-28. 
  8. ^ a b c d Wolfgang, David. "Drone Journalism: Is Resistance Futile?". Quill Magazine. 
  9. ^ Bell, Melissa (4 December 2011). "Drone Journalism? The idea could fly in the US". The Washington Post. 
  10. ^ "Journalists and Developers". DroneJournalism.org. 
  11. ^ "The Missouri Drone Journalism Program". 
  12. ^ Pavlik, John V. (2001). Journalism and New Media. New York: Columbia University Press. p. 83. 
  13. ^ "FAA UAS Online Listening Session". Federal Aviation Administration. 
  14. ^ Gallagher, Ryan. "Privacy Risk or Future of Aviation? Five Perspectives on Domestic Drones". Slate Magazine. 
  15. ^ Russia Today, "‘US spies on whole world, so what?’ – Bahamas minister", RT.com, 9 July 2014
  16. ^ Ryan Devereaux. "Bahamians React to NSA Surveillance", The Intercept, 9 July 2014
  17. ^ Daily Dot, "Watch a Phantom drone in action at the Harlem explosion site", The Daily Dot, 12 March 2014