University programs now funding drone-based journalism

Wednesday, November 07, 2012 by: J. D. Heyes
Tags: drones, journalism, surveillance

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(NaturalNews) "Drone journalism?" That could become part of the media lexicon in the next few years if a University of Nebraska program, um, takes off. But will it be ethical? Students there are examining that question, among others, such as how practical using drones to cover - or create - stories really is.

According to The Blaze, the university's College of Journalism and Mass Communications in Lincoln recently launched what it is calling the Drone Journalism Lab, a project designed to test the effectiveness and practicality of using drones to cover stories.

"Journalism is evolving rapidly, and journalism education must evolve with it, teaching new tools and storytelling strategies while remaining true to the core principles and ethics of journalism," says a description of the program on the lab's website. Launched by Prof. Matt Waite, a principal developer of the Pulitzer Prize-winning Politifact, a publication of the St. Petersburg Times newspaper, "to explore how drones could be used for reporting," the project features both students and faculty who "build drone platforms, use them in the field and research the ethical, legal and regulatory issues involved in using pilotless aircraft to do journalism."

Experts have noted that, as the use of drones increases within the military, federal and civilian law enforcement agencies, they were bound to have uses for other entities as well.

But the media?

Why not? Waite and his students respond.

'Drones are an ideal platform for journalism'

"Journalists are increasingly faced with two problems: a growing appetite for unique online video in an environment of decreased budgets; and restricted or obstructed access to stories ranging from disaster coverage to Occupy Wall Street protests," says the project description. "The technology behind autonomous and remotely piloted vehicles is rapidly moving from military applications to the point where private citizens can own and operate their own drone. At the same time, high definition and 3D video cameras are getting smaller, cheaper and lighter. Paired with global position devices, they make ideal additions to an airborne platform."

"In short," the school says, "drones are an ideal platform for journalism."

Operating with grant money, the lab recently produced its first drone-assisted story, which dealt with Nebraska's lingering drought conditions. In order to help get the story, the journalism department's drone program partnered with the university's Nebraska Intelligence MoBile Unmanned Systems (NIMBUS) Lab, which in turn provided students with a $25,000 drone and a pilot to fly it.

In an interview with the Silicone Prairie News, Waite said the drone lab has ordered its own equipment as well.

"It was fun getting out there and doing actual journalism instead of talking about it," he told the paper. "We learned a lot doing it, and we've still got a lot to learn. But I think we've proven the concept, if it even needed further proving."

The paper said the concept was straightforward and simple. Drones are going to be used to gather news and other public data. The concept will be further aided by the fact that, by 2015, the Federal Aviation Administration will be issuing new rules permitting wider use of drones. For now; however, any drones flown by the school have to remain under the federally mandated limit of 400 feet.

Will drone journalism test ethical boundaries to get a story?

Though Waite said the use of a drone to help produce the flood story was just a first step, "now comes the harder parts of seeing how far the concept can go, and what boundaries there needs to be," he added.

Therein lies the rub, as they say. Just what is and isn't within boundaries, all to get a story?

For his project, Waite set these guidelines:

-- The drone would have to fly away from people and houses

-- It would have to fly under 400 feet

-- It would have to be within sight of faculty and students at all times

-- The footage shot by the drone would have to be interesting and newsworthy

"Drought, and a nearly empty river, fit our requirements," Waite said. "We could fly in rural areas, all within FAA restrictions, and the video would be interesting."

Okay, so Waite has set what appear to be very ethical standards for drone usage. But will others?

And there are more questions needing answers: What big stories are waiting to be broken using drone journalism? Whose rights will be trampled to get those stories? Will Paparazzi make ethical use of drone journalism?


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