ETHICS AND PRIVACY ISSUES TO CONSIDER WHEN USING DRONES FOR JOURNALISM PURPOSES

The drone code of conduct was developed by Jeff Ducharme, an instructor at the College of the North Atlantic in St. John’s NL

It’s important to realize exactly what drone technology is. It’s a disruptive technology just like automobiles. When the horseless carriage first hit the road, people were saying they would cause pregnant women to have miscarriages and many people would be killed by spooked horses that would stampede through the streets.

Cars changed the world, as will drones. But people have concerns. Some concerns are driven by certain industries and professions that see the technology as a threat, but others are far more immediate and legitimate. The biggest one facing the news industry is privacy. In 2014, I wrote the Drone Journalism Code of Conduct for just this reason. I wanted the general public to understand that this was not going to be a free-for-all, that journalists were going to be responsible with the technology. As one futurist referred to it, it’s not the be-all-to-end-all, but a jumping off point in the right direction.

In 2014, I saw a train coming – the invasion of privacy train. This is another critical piece that educators can’t leave out. We live in a world where we share personal data like candy and where our privacy is a few skilled keystrokes away from being invaded. People are paranoid, and they have a right to be.

While the code contains almost two dozen points, the most important one is this:

“A drone is a powerful tool and it must be treated as such. A drone should only be used to gather information pertinent to a given story. Drones should not be used to search for stories.”

If we stray from this, then the public has every right to demand that drone journalism be grounded. If we stand idly by and watch this technology be perverted by those who are unethical in its use, then we deserve to suffer the backlash of the public. We must be responsible in what we teach and what we expect, in fact, we must demand that our students be responsible in how they use such technology. We must be beyond reproach. By our actions, we must distinguish ourselves and how we use drones from that of the unscrupulous paparazzi. We must challenge and report the out-of-the-box fliers who show up at scenes and then post to social media.

We are also our own worst enemies. We tend to eat our young.

 

Certain publications push click-bait stories written to up their page traffic and advertiser revenue. Analytics gives them the roadmap they use to determine which stories grab people’s imagination or stoke fears. Drones are a perfect bait and far too many journalists use it for such. There was one such instance in St. John’s and I was asked to comment a number of times. But as the legitimacy of the issue and the stories began to fade and get stretched, I realized we were in the middle of a click-bait blizzard. What the person was accusing the drone operator of doing simply wasn’t possible. I urged the person involved to call the police, Transport Canada or even me. The supposed victim took no action, but that didn’t stop the media from reporting on the story. When they announced they were doing a call-in show on drones, I declined all further interviews.

While we may chuckle about this amongst ourselves, we must take these concerns, legitimate or otherwise, seriously when dealing with the public. The public makes no distinction between reckless out-of-the-box fliers and a journalist getting shots for a story.

All the public sees are machines that fly and can take video or pictures while hovering over their backyard. And while the cell phone is a far greater privacy threat than drones, that is not the public perception. They have become comfortable with cell phones. One day they will be comfortable with drones, but today is not that day.

That being the case, we have to follow the rules to the letter and prove to the public that we can and will use this technology safely and responsibly. If your students are out in the field using a drone, make sure they are visible and they have conversations with all area residents, even municipal officials and emergency responders. Go beyond the rules and regulations. Be absolutely transparent.

The public doesn’t have to take our word for it, we have to prove it to them.

Drone code of conduct

1. The public has a right to know, but journalists must use common sense and compassion when determining what information and images will be released to the general public.

2. Operators and their employers must follow all Transport Canada regulations and carry the proper permits.

3. Privacy laws for a drone are no different than for traditional photography and must be adhered to at all times.

4. A drone is a powerful tool and it must be treated as such. A drone should only be used to gather information pertinent to a given story. Drones should not be used to search for stories.

5. If weather conditions are unsafe, the drone should not be launched regardless of how important the potential footage or images may be. The operator should be well aware of a craft’s operational parameters.

6. The drone should always be maintained to the utmost standards so that the risk to the public and property will always be at minimal levels.

7. Before a drone is launched, the area of operation should be surveyed and the operator should determine what obstacles, if any, exist and whether those obstacles present a risk to safe operation.

8. Before a drone is launched, the operator should determine safe landing zones in case the craft must be landed due to technical or weather related problems.

9. Operators should decline to fly a drone if they are unable to take off and land in a safe zone away from the general public.

10. At a scene, all emergency officials should be made aware that a drone will be in operation and the operator should work in conjunction with those officials to ensure no one is put at unnecessary risk.

11. Before starting motors, announce: Starting Motors. Before take-off, announce: Taking off. Upon commencing landing, announce: Landing.

12. Before an attempt is made to capture footage, the operator should put the drone through some basic maneuvers to ensure it is operating properly. If there is any indication that flight controls are not responding as per the craft’s specifications, the drone should be landed immediately and repairs made.

13. A drone will not be operated without liability insurance.

14. A detailed log of each flight will be kept and reviewed after each flight to identify and encourage best practices.

15. The drone will not be operated in controlled airspace.

16. Drone operators must be properly trained in the operation of their craft.

17. A drone operator should always remain within the limits of their craft and expertise regardless of how critical images or footage may be to an ongoing story.

18. No drone shall be operated under the influence of drugs or alcohol.

19. An observer shall always be used during operations. The observer must be capable of taking control of the craft should the operator become incapacitated.

20. If safety modes such as Return to Home are available to the operator, they should be employed during operations.

21. Operations must be conducted as Line-of-Sight flights.