On the morning of February 1, Pedro Rivera was lying in bed, listening to the crackle of the police scanner as he roused himself awake. There was an alert about a fatal car crash on Main Street just a few miles from his home in Hartford, Connecticut. It was a Saturday, his day off, but the 29-year-old journalist for the local CBS affiliate leapt up, threw on some clothes, and ran to his car. Resting on the seat beside him was a small, white drone.
A block away from the crash, Rivera parked his car and launched the whirring device, its four spinning rotors and red-and-green blinking lights giving it the appearance of a toy. Rivera let the drone hover about 175 feet above the ground. The footage he captured from its tiny camera gave an unsettling panorama of the crash scene, including the car’s wrinkled steel frame compressed into a brick wall as police worked the scene. Rivera’s tape had a vivid, eyewitness feel that far surpassed the quality of shots from cameramen behind yellow police tape. Plus, Rivera could watch his video in real time, on his iPhone.
Before long, three police officers approached. “The first thing out of the cop’s mouth was, ‘Do you work for the media?’ ” Rivera recounted later. “I said, ‘Yes, I work for Channel 3 but I’m here on my own time.’ ” The officers ordered him to leave, and so Rivera packed up his drone and headed home.
At work the following Monday, his supervisor called Rivera into his office and said police had complained that his drone compromised the accident scene’s integrity. Rivera tried pushing back but was told to go home. A few days later, he noticed his work email had been cut off and soon after the television station issued a statement: “WFSB does not own or utilize any drone devices. The person identified in the police report is a temporary, on-call employee of WFSB. However, he was not working for the station on the day of the incident. He was not assigned to shoot video of the crime scene by WFSB and has never been compensated for any drone video.” WFSB did not return calls to elaborate, and Rivera hasn’t been asked back to work.
From an incident in which drone video was never even aired has now come a legal case that could play an important role in the fast-churning debate over whether an aerial drone is an appropriate device for journalists. On February 18, Rivera filed a lawsuit against the Hartford Police Department and two of its officers, alleging violation of his First and Fourth Amendment rights. The suit asserts that one of the officers chilled the plaintiff’s constitutional right to freedom of speech and was inspired by an improper motive: to prevent the public from seeing video reports of what police officers do in an investigation. The Hartford police haven’t responded to the suit.
Rivera’s assertion is breaking open a discussion that media organizations may not yet be ready to have: Are the kinds of ethical and legal regimes that journalists have operated under for decades being frayed by a new technology that pits the right to privacy against freedom of the press?
To Rivera, this has become a war on cameras. “The police don’t want any more eyes on them than they have to have.” He sees taking photographs in public spaces as an established right and argues that the use of drones is likewise a protected freedom. “All this drone is, is a camera,” he said. “And if helicopters aren’t banned, why would a drone be?”
For the media, drones could be a game changer, with powers that could fundamentally transform a journalist’s ability to tell stories. The Federal Aviation Administration currently prohibits the commercial use of drones, and if a media outlet purchases freelance drone footage recorded domestically, that is considered commercial use. But the ban has been challenged with initial success and, separately, Congress has ordered the FAA to draw up new rules. A consensus is gradually emerging that existing prohibitions are crumbling and that more widespread use of drones by journalists could come as early as next year.