Editorial: Drone Talk is Droning

By: Ed Zintel

So, lately we’ve read a lot—a whole lot—about these pilotless aircraft, aka drones.

Whereas not so long ago they were considered not much more than a curiosity, today drones are at the top of the news. It’s to the point where all this drone talk has become droning. And news people are wondering how drones can help them in their jobs and if, in fact, they are the future in reporting.

E&P’s cover story this month is on that topic: “Drones Delivering News.” Yes, the media loves the potential drones have in covering news via photography and videography. As former photojournalist for The Philadelphia Inquirer, Mike Levin, told Gretchen Peck for our story, “[Drones] give you the ability to get an angle that you otherwise wouldn’t be able to achieve without renting an expensive helicopter.”

OK, fine, drones have the ability to get some great video and photos that journalists on the ground can’t otherwise get. But, the FAA has strongly opposed the media’s use of drones, mostly for safety reasons, and the battle has waged on all year.

I first saw what drones could do for photo journalism in January when I saw a minute-long aerial video, published by The (Spokane, Wash.) Spokesman-Review, of the annual Polar Bear Plunge community swim which takes place on Sanders Beach on Lake Coeur d’Alene, Idaho every New Year’s Day (see the video here: bit.ly/TByfie). The photographer, Jesse Tinsley, used his personal quad-copter unmanned camera ship to record the video from 30 feet off the ground, and the visual results were spectacular.

But Tinsley and the Spokesman-Review caught a lot of heat from the FAA for publishing the video. FAA spokesperson Les Dorr was quoted at the time saying that hobbyists are allowed to use small, radio-controlled crafts under specific guidelines, but “if you’re using it for any sort of commercial purposes, including journalism, that’s not allowed. There is no gray area (in the ban on drones).”

Well, most journalists disagree, saying there is quite a bit of gray area. As Matt Waite, professor and founder of the Drone Journalism Lab at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, said, “The FAA worries a lot about interference with aircraft in the air, but I’m saying that’s overblown. The likelihood of conflict between manned aircraft and unmanned aircraft—particularly in the small systems—is way overblown. For journalists, it’s a concern but a minor concern.”

Many news media companies concur, and, as pointed out in our story, collectively filed an amicus curiae brief with the National Transportation Safety Board in May, challenging the FAA’s ban on drones used for journalistic purposes, citing that it’s an infringement on freedom of the press and a First Amendment violation.

I predict that the ban on drones for journalism will be lifted within a year. The more we realize the widespread use of drones will only continue to grow and that common sense—common journalistic sense—will override the FAA’s concerns over public safety and privacy, the more accepting everyone, including the FAA, will become of these unusual, almost scaring looking pieces of equipment.

I also think drones will eventually become just another tool in journalism and that their use won’t be as prevalent as many people seem to think. Their high costs, combined with their difficulty of setup and their somewhat limited parameters of use will mean drones will be a journalistic tool of the exception rather than the rule.

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Published: August 22, 2014


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