Typhoon Haiyan Aftermath

Drone Journalism Is Breathtaking (and Illegal?)

New Possibilities

Above you can watch an example of drone journalism, video by Lewis Whyld, following Typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines. I can’t help but find myself in awe of the surreal way the drone moves through the structure and is then able to back out and provide the incredible aerial wide-shot.

Below is another video shot by Lewis Whyld using a drone in the Philippines. (Caution: the raw audio can be tough so I suggest turning down your volume.)

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Changing Journalism

The relatively low cost of these drones is going to enable photojournalists to produce big-budget, Hollywood-style shots on the fly (pun intended). This kind of jaw-dropping video can be produced without much preparation, expensive camera rigs, or helicopter rentals. It is going to be a lot easier to get people’s attention when you can offer them stunning visuals such as Lewis Whyld’s.

The first hurdle they will have to overcome will be the legal one. In much of the world, drone use falls into a murky legal gray-area or is completely illegal. In the United States, it is currently legal to operate similar vehicles for private, hobby purposes (ex. remote controlled airplanes) however if the same device is used commercially (a journalist on the job) then it is classified as “commercial use” which falls under the FAA’s regulatory authority.

A car crash from the Hartford, Connecticut area became newsworthy earlier this month because a journalist employed by WFSB flew a drone over the crash site. The journalist, Pedro Rivera, was not on assignment at the crash site according to the network who later suspended him. The law surrounding this issue is incomplete and confusing:

Operating as a hobbyist, Rivera is allowed to film accident and crime scenes as long as he does not interfere with the police investigation. The FAA has said that flying a drone for commercial purposes, including journalism, is illegal, though an increasing number of drone operators are challenging that assertion. The FAA has never formally instituted commercial drone regulations.

Concerns Over Drone Use

The two primary areas of concern are safety and privacy. Defining safe use is challenging because these small drones are so much different than traditional (much larger) aircraft. Is there is limit to how close one can fly to an object or person? How can we define the exact boundaries that protect the public and the rights of journalists?

Privacy on the other hand, is easier to discuss.

Do we allow more of an intrusion into more traditional private moments like a tragic car accident? Or do we say, ‘Well, this is a new technology and the public is going to have to adapt?’
Hartford Attorney Corey Brinson via Fox CT

First, I question the assertion that a car crash is a “traditionally private moment”. This is a scenario taking place in public, on public roads and while it is certainly an issue that deserves some sensitivity, it isn’t as though a journalist is poking their camera into your home. Everyone on that road is able to get some view of what is going on, and most of the time those are the first people to run over to help.

In an era of constant public and private surveillance (such as cameras on buildings) do people have any expectation for privacy when they are in public? I don’t think it is a possibility any longer. Realistically, any person driving by can use their smartphone to photograph anyone or anything. Even though the drone operator is getting a different (perhaps closer) perspective I think that is a difference of degree, not of substance.

Privacy Expectations

It was once possible for authorities to hold back information from the public. They could realistically wait until family members had been notified before releasing names or other personal information in a tragic situation. I question whether or not that is realistic anymore. In an era of Twitter and smartphone photography can we really expect the authorities to be able to keep that going?

I want to be clear: I am not advocating for families to have to find out about a death via Twitter. However, I question if there is any way to prevent it from happening with the technology that is now widely available.

Freedom of information is an incredibly empowering tool, however with the good we have to be realistic about the bad. You can’t have immediacy without it sometimes breaking traditional protocols. The expectations we share have to line up with reality.

I don’t think you can ban drone use on the grounds of privacy. The freedom that it gives journalists is overwhelmingly a good thing that will bring the public more information in a very appealing, visual way. The beautiful work of Lewis Whyld would be illegal if done in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina and that isn’t right.


The law is going to have to catch up with our technology before drone journalism can make a breakthrough. The FAA is set to relax some of its regulations in 2015 to allow new commercial drone uses. These aircraft offer the most cost-effective way to shoot many scenes and in time the business demand will be strong enough to require regulatory support.

The way we experience the news will soon have a new perspective thanks to drones.

Michael Wilson

About Michael Wilson

Michael Wilson is a Digital Strategist who works with people to build, protect, and elevate their brands online.

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