Drone Journalism Earns Its Wings

Jul 8, 2016

 Since small recreational drones came onto the market a few years ago, journalists have been using them for news gathering.

Problem is - many of them may have been doing so without clear legal guidelines.

That's because federal rules say people using drones needed to obtain a traditional pilots license. And every time someone wanted to operate the unmanned aircraft that usually weighs less than five pounds, they needed to call the Federal Aviation Administration and ask for permission - 24 hours in advance.

Recently the FAA announced it has completed a new set of rules. People who want to use drones as part of their job – and are at east 16-years-old and who speak English -- qualify to take a written exam and submit to a security check.

That’s just one part of the 600-page report that details a lot of things journalists or other professionals cannot do with a drone, such as: flying above 400 feet, getting permission to fly within five miles of an airport, and no night flying.

Matt Waite, a journalism professor at the University of Nebraska, received a grant a few years ago to study how drones could be used by journalists. That’s when he found out that he needed to spend about $7,000 and undergo the training to become a licensed pilot.

In an October, 2015 TEDx Talk in Lincoln, Nebraska, Waite said he know this new technology creeps some people out.

“A lot of the headlines you read right now about drones are kind of scary,” he said. “You know, ‘Near Misses and Crashes and Flying Trespassers!’ But understand this. The very same headlines were written in the decades after the Wright Brothers took off from Kitty Hawk in 1903.”

Kelly McBride of the Poynter Institute for Media Studies said she knows people will have concerns about journalists using drone technology.

“Will paparazzi use drones? Sure. You bet they will. And they will try to break as many rules as possible,” she said. “The thing is: if you have to have a license to use a drone, that means your license can be taken away. And you can bet there will be more regulation and oversight now rather than if it were unlicensed.”

McBride said initially, she would expect journalists to use drones in expected ways, such as reporting on a concert, a parade or a protest. Eventually, she said journalists will get more create in helping provide the public a perspective on a subject they couldn’t tell as well with more traditional reporting tools.