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Drone Use in News Debated at National Press Club

WASHINGTON—Aerial photography has been a reality since Gaspar Felix Tournachon took the first aerial photograph from a hot air balloon in France in 1858. Since then, it has continued to evolve, and according to many, that next step in its evolution has already arrived in the form of unmanned aerial systems that offer users to shoot photos or video from on high. However, UAS—though growing in popularity—continue to exist in a gray area in terms of what the government allows users to cover and who can use them.

This was a topic of discussion during a National Press Photographers Association panel, “The Right to Photograph & Record: On the Ground and in the Air,” held at the National Press Club recently.

Panel from left to right: Mickey Osterreicher, Chuck Tobin, Mannie Garcia, Linda Davidson, Derek Meeks, Liz Lyons and John Verdi UAS, or “drones” as they are more commonly referred to—though panelist Mannie Garcia, a visual journalist, took exception to that name and referred to them as unmanned aerial vehicles—have been on the government radar since 2012, when Congress mandated the FAA to develop policies regarding their use.

Three years later, the FAA has yet to enact official standards for UAS, much to the frustration of potential recreational and professional users. Perhaps ironically, the panel discussion was held the day after the Dept. of Transportation recommended that certain types of drones be registered with the FAA and that such a registry be up and running in time for the 2015 Christmas shopping season, when the devices are expected to be a hot item.

Currently, only hobbyists and those granted an exemption by the FAA are allowed to use UAS; and those with an exemption must have a certified pilot operating the UAS. But journalists are currently barred from using UAS for their work, even after they have been trained at UAS sites that are FAA-approved. Linda Davidson, staff photojournalist for The Washington Post has had multiple training sessions at an approved site with Virginia Tech, but she is still only allowed to use UAS over water and unpopulated areas.

The main concern for many when it comes to UAS is privacy; is it legal to take such photographs or video that offer a unique and new perspective in populated areas? Why should it be any different than a photojournalist taking a picture on the ground of a public event, Garcia said. Davidson also argued whether photojournalists—who must adhere to ethical practices with regular photography—be any different when using a UAS, especially when compared to hobbyists, which panelists illustrated with the fictional character of “Bobby Smith.”

“My little neighbor ‘Bobby Smith,’ with his camera can go anywhere he wants, doesn’t have any ethics or training, and throw it on YouTube,” Davidson said.

“It’s a huge disparity, and from a public safety standpoint it makes absolutely no sense,” added Chuck Tobin, a partner at Holland & Knight and chair of the firm’s national media practice team. “Linda is with a company with a proven record of safety and policies, has insurance behind it, and has invested the money in sending her through a journalism drone school program. She is going to be a lot safer operator than ‘Bobby Smith’ when she comes out of the program.”

UASs weren’t the only topic of conversation during the panel; police body cameras and how they affect privacy were also discussed. Liz Lyons, privacy officer for the Washington D.C. Metropolitan Police Department, says that around a quarter of the police departments in the U.S. are using body cams to some extent, but questions about what they can and can’t record—and whether or not those recordings should be available to the public—is still a point of debate.

“There was a really strong drive to balance privacy versus access and availability of the information,” said Derek Meeks, director of the body-worn cameras program for the MPD. “It is somewhat similar to the UAV discussion where it really is uncharted territory and figuring out how exactly this should work and how this is going to land is not crystal clear yet.”

Another point of debate is when the cameras begin recording and when they stop. Lyons says that at the moment officers are the ones who must turn the cameras on and off, but there are policy guidelines to ensure they are followed. There is also research into having these cameras turn on and shut off automatically in certain situations, i.e. drawing a weapon, but that technology is still in development.

In both cases, the panel concluded that this new technology is not going anywhere, or at the very least, is just the beginning of what is to come down the road. Therefore it is up to the government to catch-up and craft regulations so that UAS can be used responsibly and effectively.

“Every new technology has created a certain amount of ‘freak out’ factor in the American public,” said Tobin. “It happened with the Browning camera, it happened with portable computers, it happened with iPhones and now it is happening with UAVs. We will get over it, we will move forward.”

“The genie is out of the box, and why waste the energy trying to put it back,” explained Garcia. “So let’s go dancing with the genie.”