In the next few years, journalism will be hands-down the number one most controversial application of commercial drones use. On one hand, it’s easy to see why so-called “drone journalism” (yes, this is a real thing) is being pushed by supporters; it can easily elevate the way news is being reported. UAVs can be used to cover events from a vantage point that provides a sense of scale and impact that cannot be achieved from the ground and/or may be too dangerous for manned aircraft. For the observer, this means clearer pictures of events as they unfold, especially when done in conjunction with on-the-ground reporting.
Additionally, drones provide virtually anyone the means to conduct aerial reporting. In the same way Twitter disseminated the ability to report news headlines, drones have the potential to democratize who can publish and distribute extensive, live video footage.
The primary issue in this regard is the privacy of average citizens and high profile individuals like celebrities and politicians. As soon as TMZ starts trailing movie stars with drones, lawsuits will become the next big celebrity trend. And when the National Enquirer drone decides to follow around someone with the profile and skill set of, say, an Alex Rodriguez, you can be sure that drone is going to get a ball’s-eye-view of his swing, resulting in another (awesome) lawsuit.
In the most ironic example of this kind of privacy violation, Senator Barbara Feinstein (D – CA), Chairman of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence and notorious proponent of strict drone regulation, told 60 Minutes she came face to face with a drone when she looked out her window during a protest against NSA spying going on outside her house.
Well, it wasn’t so much a drone as a remote control toy for young girls, but you get the point.
In addition to the privacy concerns, drone journalism can also be considered legitimate interference in disaster scenes where other aircraft like rescue helicopters are present. As much as reporters are trying to get the money shot, rescue personnel are priority.
“Really the technology is quite neutral,” Matt Waite, founder of the Drone Journalism Unit at the University of Nebraska, told Wired. “It is what we choose to do with it that raises the ethical problems here. Given that, I think what you have to look at is, what did the operator do with the device, and was it done with some respect towards privacy?
Drones surely provide a different level of access to professional and citizen journalists alike. However, due to the ethical dilemmas surrounding drone journalism, it goes without saying that regulating this sector of the drone market should be the top priority for the FAA.
Alan is serial entrepreneur, active angel investor, and a drone enthusiast. He co-founded DRONELIFE.com to address the emerging commercial market for drones and drone technology. Prior to DRONELIFE.com, Alan co-founded Where.com, ThinkingScreen Media, and Nurse.com. Recently, Alan has co-founded Crowditz.com, a leader in Equity Crowdfunding Data, Analytics, and Insights. Alan can be reached at alan(at)dronelife.com