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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Some argue that what they're doing is at best unethical and at worst illegal. Laura Donohue, a professor at Georgetown University Law School, writes in an E-mail that they "may fall afoul of state stalker statutes if they're doing it for personal reasons."

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"I'm taking it that they aren't law professors," she writes. "But if they are aware of the law, it is also unethical to be teaching students to engage in illegal behavior."

Waite says he started his lab in part so that he could be a part of the privacy and ethics conversation, and that the FAA putting off drone integration until at least 2015 may be a blessing in disguise for news outlets hoping to one day use drones.

"This may be one of the only times journalism has had an opportunity to look at a potentially useful tool and have time to think about how they'd use it before it's thrust upon them," he says. "I view this time as a gift."

Jay Rosen, a journalism professor and media critic at New York University, applauds the fact that both schools are trying to teach students skills that might one day be coveted in the industry.

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"J-Schools are starting to take up a role as research and development test kitchens for new approaches to news," he writes in an E-mail to U.S. News. "That's good. The drone projects are an example of that. There isn't going to be an established and reliable rule set when you are trying something new. That's the unavoidable cost of taking on this different role."

So for now, both Pham and Waite will continue with their projects, where they're learning drones are tougher to operate than they expected. At Nebraska, Waite has three undergraduate students working in the lab a couple times a week. They don't receive university credit for their research and spend much of their time discussing legal, technological, and ethical issues surrounding drones.

For its first story, the group surveyed water levels on the Platte River using a $25,000 Falcon 8 copter borrowed from and flown by the school's information technology department. Since then, Waite's lab has purchased two cheaper drones that the team is working on getting into flying shape—his students are just learning how to fly them.

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"The first thing you learn flying these things is humility. You will crash and break them," he says. "I tell people that we're on the cusp of drone journalism being a thing. But for now we're still on the wrong side of that cusp."

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