A code of ethics for drone journalism


This week, AUVSI (Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International), an industry group representing drone manufacturers, developers and operators, unveiled a "code of conduct" for operating UAS. While the code fairly broad and covers concepts of safety, professional conduct, and respect to laws, it also is not terribly specific. This might reflect the diversity of the people AVUSI represents (how specific can you get for 2,100 member organizations and 7,000 individual members?), but I believed it can be improved.

The area of drone ethics -- for journalism -- is even more underdeveloped. I founded DroneJournalism.org in December 2011 with the hopes of starting that conversation, with hopes that the website would become a "wiki of drone journalism and ethics." While we've made some progress in terms of building and operating drones, we haven't come too far in the way of establishing that code. So here's my first crack at a code of journalism ethics, "A Code of Ethics for Drone Journalists."

The full link to the post of the code is on the website, but the Cliffs version is: drone journalism is a branch of journalism, and so journalists who use drones for reporting have all the responsibilities that we traditionally expect journalists to have, but with some added responsibilities that come with operating spinning, flying machines that could hurt somebody.

Also, in my view, it's important not to just throw a list of requirements at a person and expect them to make sense of it. Many codes of conduct or ethics are just that: lists of bullet points that don't really provide direction or help with the application of the rules. I think a better approach borrows from "Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs," which hinges on the idea that to proceed to the next "highest" level of achievement, you first must solve some very basic problems.

So really, what I'm going after is like a check-list for drone journalism ethics. Here are the levels of this "hierarchy of drone journalism," starting from the bottom and working to the top of the pyramid:

1) 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.

2) 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. Additionally, the drone must not be flown in weather conditions that exceed the limits of the drone’s ability to operate safely, and it must be flown in a manner that ensures the safety of the public.

A drone operator must abide by the regulations that apply to the airspace where the drone is operated whenever possible. An exception to this is provided in instances where journalists are unfairly blocked from using drones to provide critical information in accordance with their duties as members of the fourth estate. The drone must be operated in a manner which is least disruptive to the general population in a public setting.

4) PRIVACY. The drone must be operated in a fashion that does not needlessly compromise the privacy of non-public figures. If at all possible, record only images of activities in public spaces, and censor or redact images of private individuals in private spaces that occur beyond the scope of the investigation.

5) TRADITIONAL ETHICS. As outlined by professional codes of conduct for journalists.

These are pretty basic guidelines for the time being (not intended to be all-encompassing), but we hope to fill out the gaps with the help of the droning community. Any opinions or comments are welcome.

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  • Not to diverge into a privacy discussion which would be offtopic to this thread but it's kind of sad that some people appear to be willing to give up on their privacy just like that only because nowadays many people post their most intimate details on social networks. Not hard to find cases already today where this turned out to be a bad idea (job applications, school admissions, etc.).

    About the code of ethics: I think it's a brilliant idea and hope it will find traction although I'm a little skeptical whether it will be adopted, for whatever that means. But yeah, if the alternative is more and more regulation of the press use of drones and in general then its clearly better. And some things are just common sense but need to be spelled out somewhere.

  • Private life is a myth since the invention telephoto lenses and microphones. =)

    Everyone just need to get used to the fact, that there are places, where you always see and hear EVERYTHING. And not only the secret services. =) If some devices violates the boundaries of ownership, you may do with it whatever you want. It's always lawful.

    Obviously, the purpose of this discussion, unleashed UAVSI, is clearly quite different than the "peace of the citizens."

  • You know even traditional journalism (not gossip/entertainment journalism) follows just 1, 2 & 5. They could be in a car, in a warzone, corporate HQ, factory, etc... they ignore 3,4 (think investigative journalism).

    It's a start, but if the Gov't or DoD gets involved in enforcing this--it will not work. It needs to be enforced like the rest of the business: by the community. And that will lead to mistakes, many mistakes, so be forewarned.

  • A code of ethics seems rather redundant in a profession so cut throat as journalism. You'll notice that the Paparazzi have no problem acting unethically if they can get the money shot.

  • T3

    Journalist and a code of ethics...you make me and Rupert chuckle...

  • Developer

    I think visible identification will probably be part of the FAA regulations. A logo or decal on the "belly" of a quad would be visible and recognizable from surprisingly far, consider how it is often possible to recognize a broadcaster logo on a chopper that is miles away, or on a microphone in a forest of microphones.

  • Andreas - I agree, it should be obvious from the drone what its purpose is and who is controlling it. Might be hard to do on a multicopter, but on a fixed-wing drone you have plenty of wingspace to paint "PRESS" or the affiliation of the news crew. I bet some kind of blinking light on the multicopter might help. Just anything that might alert people to the presence of a news drone - as the research shows people behave differently when they know they're being watched. I think that would fall under the "sanctity of public spaces" section, as people should have the right to know who is occupying the skies with drones.

  • Developer

    I'd love to hear your thoughts on "visibility" as a part of privacy. Here's what I mean - if a drone is used to cover a story, then the drone video recording should be overt. The drone should be identifiable, carry marks that indicate the media organization or journalist and indicate if it is recording (a red video light?). Exception would be if the drone is used for investigatory journalism where such visibility would undermine the journalism. 

    Basically, if you are filming, put a red light, a logo and make it obvious. 

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