“Like many other professional and citizen journalists, I had come to document a significant event in our city,” Wilson later wrote on LinkedIn. However, members of The New York City Drone User Group, a self-described “group of amateur and professional drone users,” were infuriated by Wilson’s flyover and debated it that night on a Google Hangout call. To them, it seemed an irresponsible, attention-seeking gesture at a time when discretion was better advised. As someone wrote in a group-wide email: “Put simply, please don’t be that guy (or girl).”
A spokesman for the FAA said the agency is investigating both the Harlem and Brooklyn cases. If it takes action against the Daily News or NBC4, that would clearly disrupt the fragile status quo, since it has rarely disciplined media outlets. Likewise, no news organizations have challenged the FAA on First Amendment grounds, even if experts say there may be a case to be made.
The media’s squeamish approach to the subject reflects the complexity of the issues and the ability of drones to disrupt current thinking about bedrock issues like privacy, surveillance, safety, and competitiveness.
“We as journalists have to start thinking about the impact of these flying devices,” says Waite, who started the country’s first drone journalism lab in 2011, after developing the Pulitzer Prize-winning website PolitiFact. “Are they harassing or distracting? Do they cause panic? Are we harming people psychologically or needlessly invading their privacy? I talk with the students about these ethical questions: Just because you can, should you?”
Steve Coll is the dean of the Journalism School at Columbia University and has written widely on the technology and its uses by the military. Drones, he says, “capture people’s anxieties and imagination and so it’s natural to get excited about taking possession of that technology for your own purposes.” But he says, before deploying that flying camera, journalists should ask themselves: “What can you use a drone for, that you can’t achieve by other means, that really matters, that is in the public interest, and is not just for the sake of doing it?”
Public interest is a frequently raised consideration in this debate, and also a complicated notion that can be broadly interpreted. Yet as government and law enforcement increasingly inhabit the sky, it opens the door for journalists to ask why they should be excluded. Safety concerns about drones, particularly if the journalists directing them don’t know what they’re doing, are hard to deny. But it is the matter of privacy that draws the most ire from advocates, who say this is a spurious argument when so-called Peeping Tom laws already exist that would make exceptionally invasive drone use illegal. And why wouldn’t these privacy concerns apply to the government’s extensive use of surveillance? They see it more simply: Photography is photography, a protected right that shouldn’t be revoked because a new technology came along.
In online drone forums, there is much talk about restraint and self-policing, and the dominant view is that, eventually, social norms will evolve to regulate uses of the technology, much in the way codes evolved around cellphone use. It may seem a tech-topian argument, but the power of social norms should be evident to anyone who’s ever tried taking a call in a movie theater or using a smartphone to capture video of some stranger walking by. Additional restraints might come in the form of professional ethics and organizational standards.
Scott Pham once taught a drone journalism course at the University of Missouri that ended up being grounded by the FAA. While the course was active, one of his students decided to test the investigative powers of drones and went out after class to capture video of oil companies taking water from the Mississippi River for use in fracking. Pham now works for NBC in San Francisco but he hasn’t given up his crusading belief in drones as instruments that balance individual power with that of government. “We’re living in a world where our every line of communication can be intercepted,” says Pham. “What’s not alienating is having your personal drone. It’s frustrating that people can’t see that it’s a tool of empowerment. But people don’t think the media’s interests are aligned with their own.”
It doesn’t help matters that the word “drone” carries military connotations and suggests an impossibly broad taxonomy. As enthusiasts point out, the only thing that the military’s multimillion-dollar, Hellfire-missile-carrying, mq-9 Reaper drone has in common with the Styrofoam-and-plastic Parrot quadcopter common in private use is that both can fly.