Tips from the AEJMC Teaching Committee

Drones: Just Another Tool

By Mary T. Rogus
AEJMC Standing Committee on Teaching
Associate Professor
E.W. Scripps School of Journalism
Ohio University



(Article courtesy of AEJMC News, July 2017 issue)

“Drone journalism? I didn’t know they could write.” Sometimes it takes someone completely unattached to journalism to cut right to the heart of an issue. Suddenly the thousand or so words already written to make a point seemed superfluous, but since they’re written, here they are.

Two summers ago, a television station in my local market, Columbus, OH, received one of the FCC waivers to operate a drone for commercial purposes (before the licensing rules were adopted). With great promotional fanfare, the drone was named and launched. Every night on the evening news there was at least one story with drone video and multiple live aerial shots for weather, traffic or beauty bumper shots. Only about one in four of the stories effectively used or needed the drone video, and the weather and traffic shots were no better than those the station already had from tower and traffic cameras.

I was immediately transported back to my years as a television news producer when some shiny new piece of technology came into our newsroom, and we were tasked with finding ways to use it. I vividly remember the frustration, shared by many, of having to kill legitimate stories so we could go to one more “Sky-7” chopper shot for breaking news, that often wasn’t news at all.

That same “finding ways to use our new technological toy” attitude seemed to be the focus of drone classes presented at a recent academic conference for educators in broadcast and digital media. We heard all about what equipment to buy, and teaching students to operate drones and pass the certification test. One class even received a grant to buy kits for each student to build his or her own drone. But it wasn’t until we got to ask questions that there was any mention of ethics, or when and why to use drone video.

There is no question that drones already are enhancing video journalism in the same way that helicopters did in the 1970’s and 80’s. It’s difficult to remember the days when we covered floods, tornado and hurricane damage, wild fires, crop damage from droughts, etc. without helicopter cameras. And that view from above provides an important perspective to coverage of marches and protests, while also being safer for journalists on the ground. More important, drones make aerial photography and videography accessible to a much wider range of journalism outlets because they are less expensive to own and operate.

Getting certified to fly a drone and having the skills to shoot video or pictures with it would be a valuable extra for a journalism student entering the job market. But the essential skill is knowing when drone video or pictures are the best way to visualize a story and when they are simply a distraction. You do not need to be a certified Apple trainer to edit a compelling video story. You do not need to know how to take apart and put together a Sony XDCAM to shoot good video stories.

University of Nebraska’s Drone Journalism Lab and University of Missouri’s Drone Journalism Program have the right idea in training students and professionals to use drones as one tool for visual storytelling. Both run regular workshops (although Missouri also is now teaching a full class) and have a professional staff, with certified and experienced pilots to operate and maintain the drone equipment. They have developed drone operation manuals, with safety and ethics prominently discussed. They also do what journalism schools should do with new technology — experiment and research the ways it can help journalists tell better stories. In addition, Poynter partnered with UN’s Drone Journalism Lab, Google News Lab and the National Press Photographers Association to provide intensive three-day workshops on using drones for journalism.

The Professional Society of Drone Journalists (yes, there is one!) developed what it calls a layered approach to drone ethics, layered on top of existing ethics codes from organizations such as SPJ, RTNDA and NPPA. There are five layers creating a pyramid — the foundation of the pyramid is Newsworthiness and the top of the pyramid is Traditional Journalism Ethics:

• Traditional ethics. “As outlined by professional codes of conduct for journalists.”
• Privacy. “The drone must be operated in a fashion that does not needlessly compromise the privacy of non-public figures…”
• Sanctity of law and public spaces. “A drone operator must abide by the regulations that apply to the airspace where the drone is operated whenever possible…”
• Safety. “A drone operator must first be adequately trained in the operation of his or her equipment. The equipment itself must be in a condition suitable for safe and controlled flight….”
• Newsworthiness. “The investigation must be of sufficient journalistic importance to risk using a potentially harmful aerial vehicle. Do not use a drone if the information can be gathered by other, safer means.”

As journalism educators, we struggle with the journalistic value and ethical considerations, not to mention the skills learning, of constant technological innovation. A digital editor for the New York Times provided very helpful advice during a Poynter seminar on the Future of Journalism. As we eagerly asked which software and hardware we should be teaching our students, he said, “None! Any technology they use in college will be obsolete by the time they enter the job market.” Instead he urged us to always emphasize the story. Then get them so adaptable to changing technology, that when they have an idea for a story element, it’s second nature to google search for the freeware tool they need and find the YouTube video that teaches them how to use it. The first thing I did when I got back to my office was delete every step-by-step cheat sheet I had painstakingly created for the tools my students use.

PSDJ Code of Ethics for Drone Journalists,
The Drone Journalism Lab, University of Nebraska-Lincoln,

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