Journalism Schools Try Out Drones—And Test Legal Boundaries

Using drones for journalism raises all sorts of legal and ethical issues, experts say.

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AP style, interviewing skills, fact checking, and … drone flying lessons? At least two journalism schools are experimenting with using unmanned aircraft as news-gathering tools.

Drones have already been used by law enforcement, search-and-rescue groups, and other government agencies in the United States, but unmanned aircraft are still illegal for commercial entities to fly (and will remain illegal until at least 2015), which might be one reason that TMZ's rumored interest in a drone was quickly denied by the company.

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That makes universities one of the only legal places for journalists to learn to fly drones. At the University of Nebraska, professor Matt Waite says they're staying "well within the non-commercial rules" and at the University of Missouri, students are working with the nonprofit National Public Radio station KBIA. Both universities are flying drones under a model aircraft exception in the law that allows hobbyists to fly small aircraft at altitudes below 400 feet.

Professors at both schools are also struggling with how to use drones in a way that will keep them off the radars of groups interested in privacy. In Missouri's graduate school program (which has about 10 students enrolled), they are "having a hard time figuring out how to integrate [drones]," says Scott Pham, content director at KBIA and co-head of the Missouri program.

"The law has so much grey area—we have to find stories that are not going to involve people. The more people that are involved, the closer you get to legal and ethical issues," he says. "We're researching the laws, but to be honest, I want to find a way to skirt the issue."

Missouri's launched earlier this year. Pham says they've got a couple drones in flyable shape and the team is waiting for the weather to warm up to do its first stories, which could happen in a matter of days. Once people see the potential positive uses of drones, he hopes the public will be a little more likely to accept them.

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"These are so different than what we're using overseas. They use similar technologies, but we're doing different things with them" he says. "I think in a few years, we'll understand the distinction and it won't be so scary."

Both professors say they're excited to be on the cutting edge of new journalism technology, but realize their actions could impact public opinion—many states (including Missouri) are already considering banning private drone operators from flying in their states' airspace. While the drone industry has been pushing the FAA to make using a drone in the United States easier for law enforcement and farmers, it doesn't seem to have the same love for journalists.

Last month, at an event in Washington, D.C. discussing drone privacy issues, Gretchen West, executive vice president of the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International said simply: "Using UAS for journalism is illegal."

Waite says it's likely "this whole thing is going to court, with a whole lot of people filing a whole lot of lawsuits." He says drones' true journalistic usefulness—at least for now—isn't in paparazzi or spying on sources, it's in agricultural, traffic, and natural disaster journalism. With many news outlets going through hard times financially, he says a drone can be a cheap replacement for a breaking new helicopter.

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"The economics are what makes the argument for UAVs … for the kind of money it costs to buy and maintain a helicopter, I can build you a whole lot of UAVs," he says. "I think the real uses are going to be on reporting stories with a huge spacial extent—natural disasters, agriculture, suburban growth, wildfires, and traffic."

Until the rules are more clear, both he and Pham are trying to stay out of the FAA's cross hairs as much as possible.

"The last thing I want is to have my voice mail blinking and have it be the federal government calling," says Waite. "Honestly I think if we got in legal trouble it'd be counterproductive to the idea of journalists using UAVs in the future."