The thoughtful use of drones for newsgathering has grown quickly with most newsrooms having unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) as an option, but few of those organizations have formal policies regarding drone usage and have not shared with the public how and why they use the new technology.
In a white paper “Drones in the News: Journalist Conceptions and Public Engagement,” journalists were surveyed about drone use in different story categories, ethical considerations, openness to public participation and development of policy. The paper is from the Center for Journalism Ethics, University of Wisconsin-Madison in partnership with the National Press Photographers Association.
“It’s never been more important to communicate about our practices and why we do the things we do in journalism. Drones are just one opportunity to be open with the public and help gain credibility and build trust. These results show journalists are thoughtful about when and how to use drones. That’s a story we should be telling,” said Kathleen Bartzen Culver who, with Megan Duncan authored the paper.
The information in this paper can be a tool for journalists as they implement drone journalism and face questions from a public that sometimes have unfounded fears.
“The work being done by the Center for Journalism Ethics regarding the use of drones for newsgathering is critical in the development and implementation of newsroom guidelines and policies about such use. This white paper is an excellent follow-up to the drone public opinion survey they did last year and NPPA is proud to have been able to collaborate on both of these efforts with them,” said Mickey H. Osterreicher, legal counsel for the NPPA.
The Federal Aviation Administration regulates the use of drones for commercial purposes and journalism is classified as commercial use. The FAA’s Small Unmanned Aircraft Rule, known as Part 107, establishes an operator’s certificate for commercial users. The certification requires a test covering basic knowledge of airspace and aeronautics. The FAA said that it had issued 100,000 remote pilot certificates since Part 107 was instituted about two years ago.
The Drones in the Newspaper conducted a national survey of 92 journalists who use or are considering using drones. About 82 percent of participants had direct contact with a drone used in journalism, and 32 percent said the personally had a drone. Also, 85 percent of the respondents said they or someone else in the newsroom had FAA authorization to fly a drone commercially.
However, a third of them said neither they nor their newsroom had developed a policy regarding drone use, and 37 percent said they had taken no steps to give the public information about drone use or newsroom policies.
The survey also asked what kinds of stories are best for drone coverage, asking both journalists and the public, ranking topics from 1 to 5 in importance.
The highest level of support for using drones is in news stories about the outdoors, including stories about the environment, outdoor activities, weather and traffic. Investigative news stories also received a high level of support. News stories about celebrities and personal lives of politicians got the lowest levels of support.
Overall, journalists supported drone coverage higher than the general public in each category. The exception was in the topics ranked lowest, investigating the personal lives of politicians and reporting on celebrity new. In the story categories labeled impropriety and celebrity, the public supported drone use more than journalists. Both of those topics ranked at 2.5 and lower for journalists, but the public ranked both closer to 3.
In a situational context, the survey participants said they were most comfortable flying drones over government-owned buildings and land, or large public events. They were less comfortable flying over privately-owned businesses and least likely to fly over private homes and homes of elected officials. They were unlikely to follow a person over the course of an hour or to fly over the home of a celebrity.
Journalists in the survey said adding drones to their newsrooms is a benefit. They can cover types of stories, capture more video and the drone footage adds to investigative reporting where the images are difficult to dispute. The significant obstacles to adding drones are safety and liability issues.
Training is helping prepare journalists using drones. News organizations and trade groups like NPPA have worked to operate within the bounds of the FAA guidelines, including workshops that have led to hundreds of journalists passing the FAA drone certification.
Journalists and news organizations are wise to consider how the public evaluates their practices and how they can positively affect those perceptions. Drone use is one important arena where we can engage in these questions. To chart a better course addressing these wide-ranging topics, newsrooms need to develop proper and workable policies and guidelines.
Ideas from the study for shaping drone journalism policy include:
• Consider story types that come up and think in advance about the appropriateness of drone use in those situations.
• Address not just what would make for interesting video or data, but more importantly about what serves the public interest.
• Post policy publicly, so citizens can access it if interested and other news organizations can use it as a model.
• Aim to be diverse and inclusive when deciding who to train to use drones, as the overwhelmingly male sample responding to this survey highlights a lack of gender diversity in the ranks of drone journalists.
• Label all images and footage captured through flight as drone images and footage. When posted online, link those labels to the organization’s drone policy.
• Work proactively with law enforcement and other governmental organizations to advocate for responsible drone use in coverage to avoid draconian restrictions.
• Establish a means for audience members to suggest story ideas that might benefit from drone coverage.
• Interact with citizens through social media, specifically on the topic of drones. This could be as simple as a Facebook Live session to take drone questions.
• When possible and safe, answer questions from the public about drone use when at a scene.
Osterreicher wrote in the forward to the report in the hope that this data and analysis will help educate the public, allay unfounded fears, improve communication with citizens and other stakeholders and build support for drone use in newsgathering and reporting.
Read the Drone Journalism Ethics outline that came out of drone workshops in 2017.