Drones — unmanned aerial vehicles with cameras aboard that can send live video back to their controllers (and the online world) — are already being used by environmental journalists to report important stories in ways previously impossible. But journalists face a looming confrontation on whether the federal government will try to prevent such newsgathering by making it illegal.
Newscasters have shot car chases from helicopters for decades. But drones, which are getting smaller and less expensive, could help environmental journalists cover forest fires, floods, pipeline explosions, chemical leaks, coal-ash spills, wildlife (and wildlife crimes), protests, and severe weather, among other news. Will the Federal Aviation Administration make that illegal?
The first answer is likely to come soon. Connecticut journalist Pedro Rivera filed suit February 18, 2014, against Hartford police officers who he said violated his First Amendment rights to gather news. He had been using a remote-controlled drone to take pictures of a car wreck, and the officers had demanded that he stop doing so.
Whatever the outcome of that case, drone journalists are awaiting a definitive ruling by the Federal Aviation Administration. The FAA is trying to come up with rules for integrating remote-control aircraft with the rest of the U.S. aviation system. Until then, the FAA has been perceived as restricting drones severely. But practitioners at the Missouri Drone Journalism Program are worried that the rules the FAA eventually comes up with could be worse.
An FAA flack in January made headlines by announcing that drone journalism was flatly illegal — while use of drones by hobbyists was fine. The distinction, he said, was that journalism was done "for commercial purposes." The idea that journalism is always done for profit is now more obsolete than the Wright brothers' 1903 Flyer. So the flack, who had no regulatory authority himself, did not actually clarify the legal issues.
- Drone Journalism Lab,  University of Nebraska-Lincoln (College of Journalism and Mass Communication).
- Missouri Drone Journalism Program. 
- Professional Society of Drone Journalists. 
- "Drones, Journalism, the FAA and the Crackdown That Isn't a Crackdown,"  Drone Journalism Lab, February 11, 2014, by Matt Waite.
- "Journalist Sues Police Who Questioned Drone Use,"  Associated Press, February 18, 2014, by Michael Melia.
- "Journalism Gets into the Act As Drones Capture Floods, Protests and Wars,"  Guardian Media Blog, February 12, 2014, by Leila Haddou.
- "Police, Paps and Privacy: the Challenges of Drone Journalism,"  WIRED UK, February 12, 2014, by Katie Collins.
- "Use of Drones in Journalism Set To Increase,"  Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism, June 18, 2013.
- Previous Story: SEJ WatchDog of January 22, 2014.