Journalists Using Drones Face Legal and Logistical Challenges

Using drones to gather images is a new and growing area of journalism, but there are challenges for drone operators, including privacy rights, safety issues, Federal Aviation Administration rules, and pressure from local and state regulators, according to Travis Fox, director of visual journalism at the Craig Newmark Graduate School of Journalism at CUNY.

Fox explored the issues in an article in the Columbia Journalism Review. When flown safely, he wrote, “drones can be an ideal tool for journalists,” offering, for example, “visceral, immediate” visuals of areas hit by disasters at much closer range than images shot from helicopters or small planes. For news organizations, gathering photos or video by drone can also be simpler and faster than chartering manned aircraft.

But drone operators must navigate numerous legal and logistical considerations. The FAA “maintains that airspace, starting at the surface of the earth and extending tens of thousands of feet,” is public and therefore subject to federal regulations, according to Fox. But property owners concerned about noise, accidents and privacy don’t want drones flying over homes and backyards. They’re pressuring state and local officials for more regulations.

For now though, Fox said, a 2017 landmark decision held that “federal rules regulating drone operation took precedence over local laws. … The decision means that airspace is clear for drone journalists so long as they follow FAA rules.” And those rules are fairly straightforward: “You can’t fly over people, at night, or at events too close to airports,” Fox wrote. Monitoring last-minute developments is also essential when covering breaking news. For example, in a wildfire, the FAA could close airspace to give preference to firefighting aircraft. Considering that a collision with a drone could bring down a manned aircraft, attention to safety matters.

“Drone laws and regulations are rapidly changing,” said Fox, who’s hosting a summit on drones at the journalism school Oct. 26, 2018. “As journalists, it’s imperative that we protect our First Amendment rights while ensuring the skies are safe and available to all aircraft.”

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“Drone journalism’s battle for airspace”

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Travis Fox (Director of Visual Journalism) | Profile 1 | Profile 2

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Craig Newmark Graduate School of Journalism

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“Drone Journalism” (Craig Newmark Graduate School of Journalism)

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