Every reporter knows the feeling of wanting to get closer to the action. There are a lot of traditional ways to achieve this – inside sources, telephoto lenses, news helicopters, just to name a few. But now that ever-cheaper drones can be outfitted with cameras, journalists have a whole new way to get a better angle on a story. And they want to use it.
The problem is that in the United States, despite the increasing use of drones for things like photographing real estate, there are no real rules to control their commercial operation. The FAA is in charge of regulating “unmanned aircraft systems,” but they have been slow to formulate guidelines, and have admitted they won’t meet the 2015 deadline for doing so. In the meantime, it's technically illegal to operate a UAS for commercial use, and can result in a $10,000 fine, though that law is only enforced on occasion.
A recent case in Connecticut is testing whether limiting the use of a private drone amounts to the muzzling of free speech. An employee of a Hartford television station ran into some trouble when he used a small camera-equipped drone to take footage of the aftermath of a car wreck on February 1. Cops on the scene told Pedro Rivera he had to ground the aircraft, then reported him to his employer, saying that he had interfered with their investigation of the crash. Rivera was suspended from his job for one week without pay as a result.
A police spokesman later said that the cops acted out of concern for the privacy of the deceased victim, whose body was hanging out of the wreckage, as well as for the safety of the investigating officers.
Rivera filed a lawsuit last week claiming that the Hartford police violated his First Amendment right to free speech as well as his Fourth Amendment protection against unreasonable seizure. He's arguing that he was on his personal time and not on assignment for the station, although the station occasionally uses his video feeds. He and his lawyer also made the point that he was operating the drone over public land, shooting a scene that was in public view.
For Matthew Schroyer, the founder and president of the Professional Society of Drone Journalists, the case is emblematic of a double standard for journalists operating drones as opposed to equipment such as long-lens cameras. "Other photographers who arrived documented the scene with telephoto lenses, which were much more intrusive than Rivera's drone," the PSDJ said 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."
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."