Drone use highlights questions for journalists

The FAA is developing new rules as the technology makes drones far more versatile, but for now operators can run afoul of regulations by using them for commercial purposes, including journalism.
Published: February 11, 2014
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As police responded to a deadly car crash, they noticed an increasingly familiar sight: a remote-controlled aircraft, equipped with a video camera, hovering over the wreckage.

The Federal Aviation Administration has opened an investigation of the drone, which was used by an on-call employee for a Connecticut television station. The FAA is developing new rules as the technology makes drones far more versatile, but for now operators can run afoul of regulations by using them for commercial purposes, including journalism.

The case of the Hartford crash, in which the victim’s body was left hanging out of a mangled car, highlights some of the safety, privacy and ethical issues that journalists will wrestle with as interest grows in using drones for newsgathering.

“Here was a dead body still on the scene. We had covered it the best we could,” said Lt. Brian Foley, a Hartford police spokesman, who said drones have been appearing more frequently at crime scenes. “You don’t want the family to see that.”

Hartford officers questioned the man operating the drone on Feb. 1 but did not ask him to take it down, Foley said. The man identified himself as an employee of WFSB-TV but said he was not working for them that day.

The station’s general manager, Klarn DePalma, said it constantly evaluates new technology and is eager to see regulations spelled out for drones, but he said the temporary employee in question was not on assignment for them and has never been paid for drone video.

Aerial drones, long associated with the military, increasingly have been adapted for civilian use. They have been deployed widely to document the scale of disasters and, at the Sochi Olympics, they are being used to help broadcast the events.

Media outside the United States have been using drones in news coverage, including news organizations in Thailand covering political protests in Bangkok over the past three months.