Are Rules Against Using Drones for News Gathering a Double Standard?

By Kevin Eck 

drone_AP_croppedWhen WFSB employee Pedro Rivera sued the Hartford Police after they prevented him from using his drone to document a car crash, he brought the issue surrounding drone use by local TV stations to the forefront.

Matthew Schroyer, founder and president of Professional Society of Drone Journalists, told The Atlantic he thinks the case reveals a double standard for journalists who want to use unmanned vehicles to shoot news.

“Other photographers who arrived documented the scene with telephoto lenses, which were much more intrusive than Rivera’s drone,” said the PSDJ in a statement. “Yet those journalists were never questioned, let alone expelled from the scene, pursued and suspended. The actions of the Hartford police in this incident were uncalled for, and are an affront to press freedom.”

While a few stations have used drones for one off reports, none have taken the bold step of adding a drone as a regular feature.

Schroyer thinks the United States should look to the example of Canada and Australia, both of which have implemented rules to govern the use of drones for commercial purposes, including journalism. “They require certification,” says Schroyer, who says that his organization supports setting a standard for commercial UAS pilots. He compared a drone to a car, both in terms of its usefulness and in terms of how responsible a user should be. “You can’t just walk into a DMV as a journalist and say, I need to drive to do my job.” It makes sense, says Schroyer, to require the equivalent of a driver’s license.

But this doesn’t get at some of the thornier questions of privacy. That’s why his organization has also formulated an ethical code for journalists using drones. Its elements are newsworthiness; safety; sanctity of law and public spaces; privacy; and traditional journalism ethics.

It’s important for reporters to be able to use drones, Schroyer believes, because the technology enables a new level of information-gathering, especially in areas such as environmental journalism. He cites a case outside Dallas in which a private citizen operating a drone discovered that a meatpacking plant dumping blood into a river, turning it a gruesome red.

“One of the great promises of drones in journalism is that you can uncover things that previously only governments had access to,” says Schroyer.

He is well aware of concerns about privacy and safety, especially in densely populated areas. But he believes that a “productive conversation” about the pros and cons of drone journalism could lead to a system that takes those concerns into account. Regardless, Schroyer says, the “disruptive” technology of drones is here already, and it’s not going away just because the FAA is taking its time in formulating regulations.

“We have the right to record things in public spaces,” he says. “We want the right to prove that we can all be responsible drone users.”