Waite, Journalism Professor at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, says its up to journalism as an industry to put press freedom on the agenda of developing global drone laws.
"We need to be out there saying ‘we want to use these and we want to use them safely. We want to do the right thing’ and by and large that’s not happening around the world," he told WEF.
Global drone restrictions
The diverse level of restriction and the constant change in regulations by various civil aviation authories makes it difficult to grasp the global legal landscape of drone use. Last month South Africa totally banned Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs), or drones, and the US Federal Aviation Admission is currently reviewing its policies - it already has a ban on all commercial deployment of drones.
But while drone journalism has stalled in some newsrooms globally, others are still riding the wave without restrictions.
Drone journalism in Bangkok
Photo producer and in-house UAV pilot for The Bangkok Post, Sithikorn Wongwudthianun captured breathtaking images of Bangkok during political protests in 2013 using a drone (see main photo). He learned to operate his UAV in a football field next to the office and he is still using drones to capture footage even in the midst of coup-driven martial law.
“In Thailand it’s considered a hobby. You can go into a shop and get one for US $1000,” he told WEF. “There are no rules in Thailand, yet.”
He says learning how to operate a UAV is easier than playing Play Station 3. “You have to fire to the enemy, you have to avoid the missiles and you have to win the game…that’s more difficult than the UAV itself. So, thanks Sony.”
'Cowboy-style' drone journalism
But this kind of liberal experimentation has been a significant factor in the rise of heavy-handed restrictions in many countries, according to Waite.
"At least so far, no one has gotten hurt. No one has done anything spectacularly stupid," he says, but it will only take one irresponsible drone accident to "to really hurt our chances of using these devices."
This sentiment was echoed by South African digital journalist and media strategist, Justin Arenstein at the World Editors Forum Conference in Turin earlier this month, who compared experimental drone journalists to cowboys - without laws and limits.
— Julie Posetti (@julieposetti) June 8, 2014
Matthew Waite says the response to unrestricted use could indeed be reactive, knee-jerk laws. "The law will always lag (behind) technology. That’s always going to be true but we also do not want law to get into a race with technology," and overreach, pushing the laws backwards, he said.
But this is nothing new in the history of newsroom technology. The laws tighten up initially but we’ve seen it all before with the introduction of almost every new piece of technology that has arrived, according to Professor George Brock, Head of Journalism at City University, London. “Clearly [the restrictions] will delay experiment and innovation – but they will probably not do more than that. Most new technologies get put to use eventually, even if there is a hold-up while society works out under what rules or conditions they can be used,” he told WEF.
But he says journalists also need to remember the significant privacy implications of drone usage and they must engage with public concern. “Unless journalists are seen to be doing that, politicians, legislators and judges are liable to think and act restrictively,” he says.
Matthew Waite says "there’s no getting around this: these devices do make people uncomfortable. They can violate privacy, they can cause damage."
So how should professional journalism navigate drone reporting restrictions?
Before the big decisions are made by legislative bodies, Justin Arenstein, believes journalists need to initiate collaboration with governments using a “strategic and tactical” approach to gaining fair drone regulation. He says this can be achieved by working to show the benefits such technology offers public-interest journalism.
"We need to be tactical & strategic with drones to demonstrate their value to governments, like monitoring poaching in Kenya" JA #editors14
— Julie Posetti (@julieposetti) June 8, 2014
Collaboration between journalists and researchers
In the US, a new collaboration between CNN and the Georgia Tech Research Institute was announced this week. They are pushing forward with drone journalism research in an attempt to accelerate appropriate regulation in response to current laws that severely restrict drone useage for commercial purposes, including newsgathering.
Mike Heiges, Principal Research Engineer at Georgia Tech in the US, told the World Editors Forum that combining CNN’s expertise in broadcast journalism technology and Georgia Tech’s research in systems integration and UAV operations, they hope to “investigate technologies, operating procedures, and crew skill requirements that will enable the safe and effective use of UAVs for news coverage.” The findings of the study will be shared with the US Federal Aviation Authority (FAA) with the goal of accelerating fair law making on drone use.
Collaboration between journalists and technology specialists, data collectors and scientists has also been recommended in a recent report from the Tow Centre for Digital Journalism called Sensors and Journalism in order to more responsibly use data collected by sensors, including drones.
Matthew Waite agrees. "If newsrooms are interested in data journalism [and] are increasingly hungry for new and original data to explain society or the environment...it’s going to take different ways of thinking, different ways of hiring [and] different kinds of collaborators [on] stories and [in] newsrooms", he says.
In the US at least, Waite believes the laws will be initially highly restrictive but that "as time goes by and safety data accumulates and best practices come about they’ll slowly release more freedom and open the skies up a little bit more."