Photojournalism takes flight

The photojournalist’s toolbox may soon include cameras, lenses, iPhones, and now drones.

A partnership of 15 different media companies, including The New York Times, The Washington Post,The Oregonian, The Associated Press, and Reuters, are working with the FAA on a new testing program that will allow journalists to practice using drones to cover stories. The program will help simulate news events, and allow photojournalists and videographers to practice using the aircraft to document those stories. The results will help the FAA develop new rules about how journalists can use drones.

Members of the coalition say the drones can be useful to cover a variety of stories, from natural disasters to stories on city streets.

“Whether it’s the approach of a hurricane in coastal Florida, or the droughts in the Southwest, or the riots in a city environment, UAS (unmanned aerial systems) will become a new tool and they will become an accepted standard in the coming years,” said attorney Charles D. Tobin, who represents the media coalition.

Photo by Joe Songer/al.com

A photojournalism drone in flight. (Photo by Joe Songer/al.com)

This is an exciting opportunity, and one that the group needs to get right. Drones have the potential to be a powerful tool for photojournalists, allowing them to take aerial photos, capture vast images, and shoot airborne footage that can help tell print and TV stories in new and unique ways. Imagine being able to get a sweeping shot over a drought-parched landscape in southern California, or a view of the massive amount of people clogging the streets for the Golden State Warriors championship parade! What secrets are being hidden over a previously-inaccessible ridge in the wilderness? This is an evolution in the way that stories can be covered; photographers don’t have to be stuck on the ground anymore, and can document a story from conceivably every angle.

And it’s going to be important that the tests by these media companies focus on that positive impact, because drones also come with the potential for abuse. For starters, it brings up privacy issues. Shooting photos of private property from a sidewalk has always been fair game, but as the Student Press Law Center points out:

“…they cannot use technology to improve upon what an unaided person would be able to see or hear from that public place.”

The idea of a drone seems to fly directly in the face of that idea.

And there’s also going to be the issue of operator error/interference. If a photographer covering a wildfire flies a drone that gets in the way of a helicopter, that could be dangerous. What areas in the skies will the FAA allow drones to fly into, and what will be deemed no-fly zones due to police or emergency crew activity?

Fortunately, those concerns will likely be calmed by the professionals taking part in the training. These aren’t some straight-outta-college young journalists, these are some of the top photographers, newspapers, and media organizations in the world. They employ the best of the best, and I’m confident they’re already thinking of ways to continue the evolution of photojournalism without sacrificing the foundations of journalism ethics.

As the world continues to change, journalists tools need to change with them. How journalists cover breaking news and confirm information isn’t the same as it was 20 years ago, and it’s not going to be the same 20 years from now. Drones could be a powerful tool for keeping the public better informed. Journalists have always tried to get every angle of a story, and photographers want every angle of a shot. Physically, drones can be a great way to do that. I’m excited to see the ways this innovative group of journalists will find to use these new tools responsibly.

Keep watching the skies.

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