By Casey Bukro
Not many codes of ethics urge journalists to “take all possible measures to mitigate the odds of a crash.”
But the Professional Society of Drone Journalists code does that, and says its guidelines “should be viewed as a layer of additional ethical considerations atop the traditional professional and ethical expectations of a journalist in the 21st century.”
Drones can provide images and data for “immersion journalism”, according to a blog post that predicts virtual reality tools will allow audiences to experience the sights and sounds of news events as if actually there.
The door to this future is slowly opening as the Federal Aviation Administration works to strike a balance between assuring public safety and supporting the commercial drone industry.
The Killeen Daily Herald in Texas reports that the FAA has acted on more than 3,000 petitions seeking approval for U.S. drone operations.
Section 333 of the FAA Modernization and Reform Act of 2012 gives the FAA authority to grant certificates for the commercial use of small, unmanned aerial vehicles. Journalists already use drones to cover newsworthy events, the newspaper points out.
The FAA, meanwhile, is moving cautiously. Each month, it says, the FAA receives more than 100 reports from pilots and others who see what appear to be unmanned aircraft flying close to an airport or manned aircraft.
“It’s become a serious safety concern for the agency, and a potential security issue for the Department of Homeland Security,” the agency said in a statement. As a result, the FAA is working with other agencies to develop technology to detect and identify “rogue drones” and their operators.
A 2014 FAA report denies that the U.S. lags behind other countries in approving commercial drones, adding: “we want to strike the right balance of requirements for (unmanned aircraft systems) to help foster growth in an emerging industry with a wide range of potential uses, but also keep all airspace users and people on the ground safe.”
The Professional Society of Drone Journalists claims members from the Boston Globe, ESPN and Reuters in its global ranks, along with freelancers and academics. “Established in 2011, PSDJ is the first international organization dedicated to establishing the ethical, educational and technological framework for the emerging field of drone journalism,” its mission statement reads. “We develop small unmanned aerial systems (sUAS) for journalists, and explore best practices to deploy them for a variety of reporting needs, including investigative, disaster, weather, sports and environmental journalism.”
Its membership roster includes individuals with an interest in drones, and companies that manufacture them. So what is it primarily, a group that represents drone manufacturers or a drone advocacy group?
“I am under the impression it is an advocacy group,” said Mark LaBoyteaux, owner and operator of Hawkeye Media based in the Dallas-Forth Worth area. “But I haven’t heard from them for two or three years,” adding “I thought it evaporated.”
It started, he recalled, when a group of journalists who wanted to use drones for news photography sought permission from the FAA. Instead, the agency sent cease and desist letters to them.
“I got a letter from the FAA,” said LaBoyteaux. As a result, “they wanted to form a group that could work legally with the FAA and use photography for news gathering.”
LaBoyteaux uses five “multi-copters” for aerial photography and video photography. He understands that the FAA is relaxing its rules on drones “to let them be used for commercial purposes.”
On its website, the Professional Society of Drone Journalists espouses a “layered approach” to form its code of ethics, including traditional journalism ethics, privacy, sanctity of law and public spaces, safety and newsworthiness.
Drone operators must be adequately trained, according to the guidelines, and the equipment must be suitable for safe and controlled flight in adequate weather conditions.
Newsworthiness is the foundation of the group’s “hierarchy of ethics.” Drones should be used only after careful deliberation. “The investigation must be of sufficient journalistic importance to risk using a potentially harmful aerial vehicle,” the statement says. “Do not use a drone if the information can be gathered by other, safer means.”
The Poynter Institute notes that the FAA signed an agreement with CNN to test ways journalists can safely use drones in news gathering and reporting.
“Our aim is to get beyond hobby-grade equipment and to establish what options are available and workable to produce high quality video journalism using various types of (unmanned aerial vehicles) and camera setups,” CNN Senior Vice President David Vigilante says in a statement.
FAA Administrator Michael Huerta adds: “Unmanned aircraft offer news organizations significant opportunities. We hope this agreement with CNN and the work we are doing with other news organizations and associations will help safely integrate unmanned news gathering technology and operating procedures into the National Airspace System.”
With this kind of high-level cooperation, drone operators might declare they have liftoff.
Edited by Stephen Rynkiewicz.