Knight Center
Knight Center


U.S. media defend drone journalism from federal government, arguing freedom of the press

On Tuesday, May 6, top media companies in the United States accused the Federal Aviation Agency (FAA) of obstructing freedom of speech and of the press with its broad policies prohibiting the use of drones for newsgathering.

The 16 companies – which included the Associated Press, The New York Times, The Washington Post, Gannett Co., Inc., Tribune Company and Hearst Corporation – filed a “friends of the court” brief before the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) in defense of Raphael Pirker, a drone hobbyist who was fined $10,000 by the FAA for shooting a promotional video of the University of Virginia with a drone.

Although no federal regulation exists on the use of unmanned aerial systems (UAS), also known as drones, since 2007 the FAA has taken administrative actions to prohibit any use of this technology for business or commercial applications. The media outlets argued a complete ban misunderstands journalism as a purely commercial activity rather than a constitutionally-protected right to gather and disseminate news, covered in the First Amendment.

“This overly broad policy, implemented through a patchwork of regulatory and policy statements and an ad hoc cease-and-desist enforcement process, has an impermissible chilling effect on the First Amendment newsgathering rights of journalists,” the brief read.

According to the Columbia Journalism Review (CJR), the fines against Pirker were dropped this last March after an NTSB judge decided the FAA did not have authority over small drones. The FAA responded to this by saying that anyone who flew an aircraft, “manned or unmanned,” needed their approval.

Neither Pirker nor the outlets that filed the brief are opposed to safety regulations related to drones, but rather to the “blanket ban” that stops U.S. citizens and media from adopting the new technology in any way. The FAA was tasked by the U.S. Congress to develop regulations for domestic drone use by the end of 2014, which could still impact the way news media report with drones. Media lawyer Nabiha Syed told CJR journalists could be required to receive pre-approval before using drones, which would make them useless for covering breaking news.

Forbes magazine contributor John Goglia, who writes about aviation safety, said he hoped this legal attack on the FAA would accelerate rulemaking that allowed some use of drones.

“The FAA’s failure to act has resulted in the drone industry in the U.S. lagging behind other countries,” Goglia said. “It’s hard to understand why our government would not want to be in the forefront of this new and exciting technology.”

Drones usage in Latin American media

Screenshot of drone footage of the city of San Salvador, El Salvador, shot by La Prensa Gráfica. Source: La Prensa Gráfica.

Last January, El Salvador newspaper La Prensa Gráfica became one of the nation’s first outlets to gather news with drones after purchasing three unmanned aerial vehicles, a pattern that other news media in Latin America are following, according to news website GlobalPost.

The Salvadoran outlet uses its drones primarily to shoot aerial video or photographs of big crowds gathered for events, long traffic jams, or even simply natural and artificial landmarks around the nation’s capital of San Salvador.

“The New York Times can’t do what they’re doing,” said Matt Waite, director of the Drone Journalism Lab at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. “At least, not without any serious legal hassle.”

Other media outlets in El Salvador have started using drones, such as newspaper El Diario de Hoy and TV Channel 21, as well as other outlets across Latin America. In December, Peruvian newspaper El Comercio used a drone to record a fire in downtown Lima, while Mexican Grupo Reforma shot footage of student protest in the nation’s capital months earlier.

Though domestic drone use is currently allowed in these and other Latin American countries, ethical and legal questions of privacy still exist. GlobalPost notes that these concerns could be especially important in El Salvador, a “sharply partisan” country where drones could be used to invade private spaces for political purposes.

Matt Waite argued that privacy concerns are “overblown,” especially considering the short battery life of approximately 12 minutes most of these vehicles have.

“Safety of people on the ground is by far the most significant issue that journalists or anyone who flies these things will face,” Waite said.

He expressed a similar concern at last month’s International Symposium for Online Journalism (ISOJ), organized by the Knight Center for Journalism in the Americas. However, he added that drones are ideal tools for capturing viewpoints that are otherwise unattainable, such as large-scale events like hurricanes, floods or other disasters.

Last week, several Arkansas-based journalists and media outlets used drones to cover the damage inflicted on the state by a massive tornado, which prompted an investigation by the FAA on these cases, though the agency has not taken any action against those involved up until now.


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