Using drones to report the news has its advantages, but those advantages come with the added burden of some ethical issues specific to the unmanned aircrafts.
As of right now, the scope of newsgathering by drone – known as drone journalism or aerojournalism – is severely limited by the Federal Aviation Administration, which largely bans the commercial use of drones. The federal agency is expected to announce rules for commercial use later this year, however.
While journalists wait for the rules to be announced, it’s a good idea to start thinking about the potential uses and limitations of the technology while there is time to do so.
For example, just like any other form of journalism, journalists want to make sure they’re not unnecessarily violating people’s privacy with drones. The technology provides unprecedented access.
With a drone, one has the ability to fly over homes, see into backyards and possibly get views inside homes through windows. While TV cameras could get some footage like this, drones make it easier to obtain. As suggested by the Society’s Code of Ethics, just because journalists can obtain information doesn’t mean they should publish or broadcast that information.
Journalists can identify situations needing extra caution by asking themselves some questions:
- Is the information newsworthy?
- Is what you’re seeing from your drone what you could see from the sidewalk if you were just walking by?
- Does the individual(s) you are capturing on video know you are there? Can they see you?
- Do the people likely have an expectation of privacy in that location?
In addition to privacy concerns, journalists using drones should consider the public’s safety.
- Is the drone interfering with an active police or fire response?
- Is the drone’s use putting any members of the public in harms way? Is it distracting to drivers?
- Is the drone in an area that may disrupt public utilities, like power lines?
- Are weather conditions safe for the use of drones?
Since most professional journalists can’t use drones for newsgathering at this moment, they’ll likely first encounter footage from amateur drone operators. Like any piece of journalism submitted by a member of the public, journalists should approach with caution and be inquisitive about its origins.
Lynn Walsh is president-elect for SPJ and also serves on the ethics and FOI committees. She works in San Diego for NBC 7 Investigates where she is the executive producer for the investigative unit. You can follow her on Twitter, @LWalsh.