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JOURNALISM IN THE AMERICAS Blog

Drone coverage of tornado prompts U.S. government investigation



Footage shot by drone after a tornado struck Arkansas on April 27, 2014. Source: Brian Emfinger's YouTube channel.

Not long after a massive tornado ravaged Arkansas on Sunday, April 27, Little Rock-based photojournalist Brian Emfinger used a flying drone to record a bird’s-eye view of the damage dealt by the cyclone. A day later, the United States Federal Aviation Agency (FAA) confirmed they were investigating the use of drones by journalists during the disaster, which the website Mashable described as an attempt to regulate the new technology.

Emfinger, who works for local ABC affiliate KATV, tweeted footage shot by his drone above the town of Mayflower. According to Forbes magazine, the subsequent investigation by the FAA raises “serious First Amendment questions about the agency’s ability to infringe upon press freedom in the absence of formal rules.”

The Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, quoted by Forbes, reported that Emfinger was not the only journalist who used an unmanned aircraft to shoot video of the tornado’s damage. Tim Trieschman, who specializes in aerial photography in Little Rock, also provided drone-shot air footage to local Fox News affiliate KLRT-TV.

Drones have become a hot topic in discussions on journalism innovation because of their potential as news-gathering tools. They can be quickly launched to record footage from a high vantage point -- something especially useful during storms and other disasters. This also makes them helpful devices during search and rescue efforts, even though the FAA has previously disagreed with rescue groups over the use of uncertified unmanned aircraft, according to Fox News.

We don’t have really clear rules on the road right now for the use of drones for journalists,” Matt Waite, director of the Drone Journalism Lab at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, told Forbes. “There are a tremendous number of questions that are floating around out there that have significant ramifications of how journalists will use these, that we do not have solid answers for.”

However, earlier this year the FAA stated there was no “gray area” in the question of using unmanned aircraft, reported the journalism non-profit Poynter Institute.

“If you’re using [drones] for any sort of commercial purposes, including journalism, that’s not allowed,” said FAA spokesperson Les Dorr.

Emfinger and the other Arkansas journalists who used drones could face up to $10,000 fines if the FAA decides to pursue any action against them for their use of drones, according to Forbes. However, since there are currently no set rules on the matter, such a move by the FAA can be construed as an affront to freedom of speech by news organizations and drone enthusiasts, making it a “losing strategy” for the agency.

Earlier this month, Waite spoke at the International Symposium for Online Journalism (ISOJ), organized by the Knight Center for Journalism in the Americas, and underscored the need for clearer regulations by the FAA in relation to drone journalism, predicting that the next five years would be some of the “most litigious we’re going to see in terms of journalism tools.”

Watch below another video shot by Emfinger's drone of the damage caused by the April 27 tornado:



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