Drones & Journalism

You may have seen their footage from protests, sporting events and the Nepal earthquake. You may have watched them whizzing around public parks and beaches. But, thanks to stringent rules set up by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), drones are still a limited part of the modern journalist’s reporting arsenal. 

And for good reason – journalists are afraid of the consequences of using them. In May 2014, the Columbia Journalism Review wrote about Raphael Pirker, a journalist who flew a drone over the University of Virginia. He received a cease and desist letter from the FAA and then was promptly fined $10,000, even though he was using a recreational drone, available on the mass market.

The FAA’s reasoning? They’ve outlawed the use of drones for commercial purposes – and their interpretation of this includes newsgathering. Most reporters are reluctant to risk the harsh fines that the FAA has put in place. Pirker is not the only person who has encountered pushback from the FAA. Journalists around the country have received cease and desist letters, while two university programs have had to put their drone journalism courses on hold. Some news organizations have been able to negotiate with the FAA – CNN was granted the right to test drones this past January. But, they are still very much the exception to the rule.

Some people, like Mickey Osterreicher, hope to fight this. He’s the legal counsel for the National Press Photographers Association (NPPA) and he worries about the implications of these restrictions on daily reporters and innovation in journalism.

According to Osterreicher, drone use isn’t that different from other kinds of reporting. “It’s like deciding whether you want to shoot something with a wide angle lens or a telephoto lens to tell a story,” he said. “[Reporters] have that right to record and that’s pretty established throughout the country.”

Some reporters have managed to get away with drone use, even without FAA approval. Josh Davis, a multimedia video producer who works for the New York Times, directed NPR’s “Planet Money Makes a T-Shirt,” and used a drone to gather some of the images for the piece. He wanted to get a swooping wide shot of the Mississippi cotton fields where their t-shirt producers grew cotton. “A drone can give you an angle that you’re not going to see [with a normal camera],” Davis said.

After hiring a company that specialized in drone shoots, Davis and his team used an eight- propeller drone to shoot high quality video footage of the fields. Even after days of shooting and national attention for the project upon publication, he received no cease and desist letter from the FAA, nor did he encounter any negative legal backlash.

He thinks their remote location helped them avoid controversy. “If you’re in the middle of nowhere in a field, why would the FAA tell you not to use a drone? It just doesn’t make sense,” Davis said. “If you’re in Times Square that might be another story. You have power lines, you have so many people, you have buildings.”

Tomas van Houtryve, a freelance photojournalist, has also successfully flown his drone for newsgathering purposes without getting in trouble with the FAA. But, unlike Davis, he wasn’t just looking for the perfect shot. His photo essay, presented in Harpers and National Geographic, included images that US Predator drones would usually gather in Pakistan or Yemen – weddings, group prayers and school yards. Only his images were taken in California, Maryland and New Mexico.

“I started going to the places that were listed on the map where drones have flown over US territory and then putting my own drone up in the air and photographing down to try to get a feeling of what the US government could see of us when they were flying over these areas with their drones,” van Houtryve said.

It’s a larger commentary on America’s use of drones both domestically and abroad. “People aren’t really aware that American airspace is used frequently by drones,” van Houtryve said. Just as American drones violate the privacy of many Yemenis or Pakistanis, “there’s a good chance that many Americans have been seen by a drone even if they’ve never seen a drone.”

He thinks that the vague regulations currently in place are unfair to reporters. “They’re allowing hobbyists to fly drones, they’re allowing the US government to fly drones, they’re allowing ConocoPhillips to fly drones, but there’s no way that journalists [can fly them.] And they’re considering newsgathering to be commercial,” he said. “I’d like to see more transparency and regulation on the government and law enforcement use of drones. I also think they need to come up with clear guidelines for First Amendment uses of drones for news gathering.”

Van Houtryve hopes to see the FAA follow in the footsteps of some European countries. French drone operators are required to pass special tests and acquire private pilots’ licenses before flying drones, he said. Once they have these qualifications, journalists in France are free to operate drones for any form of newsgathering, as shown in coverage of the Tour de France.

The FAA’s exemptions for 90 companies, allowing them to operate drones commercially, is a step in the right direction, van Houtryve said. As media organizations continue to use drones in their international reporting, he thinks the trend will continue to move towards allowing reporters the freedom to use the technology. Osterreicher agrees, claiming that just like every new technology, it’s only a matter of time before it becomes integrated into the day-to-day lives and laws of American society. “They talked about all of this stuff over a 100 years ago, and eventually the law caught up…and the world went on,” he said.

If you’d like to read more about drones:

Business Insider’s Drone Buyer’s Guide

Facebook Drones in the Sky

Drone shots of European cities

John Oliver’s take on drones

Local news outlets hope to use drones soon

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