In Paris, several journalists working for Al Jazeera were recently detained and fined for flying a drone over the French capital without permission to do so, and at night, which is a very big no-no in a city already on edge when it comes to security. The journalists involved claimed they were flying their drone in order to cover a story about a rash of other secretive drone flights (not theirs) over famous Parisian landmarks. Not long after Al Jazeera’s journalistic drone shenanigans were revealed to the public by French authorities, four German journalists were also arrested for preparing to fly drones (without permits) over Paris, which, in an odd twist of fate, according to Le Parisien, they wanted to do in an attempt to “illustrate a story about drones in Paris.”
Reporters flying a drone while trying to investigate shadowy figures — kids, hobbyists, terrorists, who knows? — flying drones over a crowed city followed by still more journalists getting ready to fly drones in hope of putting a story together about all of these damn drones flying over Paris. Whew, that’s enough to do your head in, right?
The skies in Paris and elsewhere it seems — whether the flights are legal or not — are going to get pretty congested with drone traffic because drone journalism is here to stay.
The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) and other aviation and security agencies around the world are sorting through a bunch of new rules designed to aid drone journalists with their work while still protecting the rights and safety of the greater public. According to the Nieman Journalism Lab, some of these regulations are likely to include “knowledge tests” (no pilots license required), evaluation of potential pilots by the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) and restricting the scope of drone operations. For example, if someone loses sight of his or her drone while covering a story, that loss of “line of sight” would be seriously frowned upon, as would flying a UAV (unmanned aerial vehicle) over a large gathering (a protest, perhaps), where if the drone malfunctioned and crashed, injury or death could result.
The Professional Society of Drone Journalists (PSDJ) has even come up with a code of ethics for drone journalism, as well as a “hierarchy” for those ethics, which includes items such as “newsworthiness,” “safety,” “sanctity of law and public spaces” and more. In other words, just flying a drone over people’s heads for the heck of it and trolling for news could be considered an unethical use of a drone, especially if you invade someone’s privacy (sorry, didn’t know you were in the shower!) or crash-land on the guest of honor at an outdoor bar mitzvah.
Considering how drones are on our minds these days, from episodes of “South Park” to security concerns in Paris, I believe this technology, which increases a journalist’s access (or anyone’s access, for that matter) to a space or event by many fold, should be regulated in order to preserve some modicum of social privacy and avoid community harm.
That being said, and taking into account the media and the public’s thirst for mayhem and shocking images, I’m fairly certain that a special breed of drone journalist already in existence — like a flight-enhanced version of Jake Gyllenhaal’s character in “Nightcrawler” — will figure out how to get permission or thwart regulations all together and fly drones over active battle scenes in war-torn countries or alongside a criminal’s car (once the drones are fast enough) during a getaway chase.
Can you imagine that? Interviewing a bank robber, with the cops hot on his tail, in the middle of a police chase? While I’m not 100 percent on when or how that would exactly work, I’d be willing to bet that it’s only a matter of time before it or something similar happens because, as I’ve already pointed out, drone media is here to stay.
Carl Pettit is a contributing journalist for TheBlot Magazine.