Journalism Ethics for Drones? UK Workshop Discussed Ethics, Privacy

iMediaEthics publishes international media ethics news stories and investigations into journalism ethics lapses.


Home » Invasion of Privacy»

(Credit: Reuters Institute, screenshot)

Drone (also known as Unmanned Aerial Vehicle) journalism was the subject of an Oct. 22 Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism workshop, according to blogger Judith Townend in a post questioning drone ethics on her blog Meeja Law.

According to a news post on the Reuters Institute’s website, drones “have potential uses and benefits for newsgathering by providing aerial platforms for photography and videography.”  The report suggests drones could be a more efficient replacement for helicopters in journalism.  For example:

“Potential uses include traffic observation, crowd observation (events, demonstrations, and civil disorders), observing events and activities in areas where land-based access is restricted, and in both sports and entertainment production.”

iMediaEthics asked the institute’s Director of Research Robert G. Picard for more information about the ethical issues discussed at the workshop. Picard told iMediaEthics by email that:

“Among other issues we discussed concerns about privacy, conflicts with emergency service aircraft, and uses of aerial video provided by non-journalists—especially activist groups. All of these have ethical implications.”

According to Townend, journalists, lawyers, academics and drone “specialists” participated in the workshop.  The Reuters Institute reported that it will publish “a report on the issues and challenges involved in news uses of UAVs…in spring 2013.”


Ethics Codes?

A Wiki site for Drone Journalism,, proposed an ethics code specifically for drone journalists. For example, some “added responsibilities” include safety and privacy.  The proposed ethics code argues that in order to use drones, “the investigation must be of specific journalistic importance.”  Further:

“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.”

iMediaEthics asked founder Matthew Schroyer for more information about the site and his proposed ethics code. See what Schroyer told iMediaEthics posted below in a Q & A:

iMediaEthics: Who created the ethics code?

Schroyer: “I authored the original ethics code for in July. The ethics code website is actually set up as a wiki, where others who are involved in drone journalism can obtain access and add rules as they see fit. So far nobody has taken up the offer, however.”

iMediaEthics: Are you the only person behind

Schroyer: “I am the founder and produce most of the content on at this point. But when I launched the website in November 2011, I did so with the help of Acton Gorton. He has a journalism background but also has a master’s from the Graduate School of Library and Information Science at the University of Illinois, and is currently pursuing a PhD in informatics. He was interested in drone journalism from the moment I threw the idea by him, and he continues to develop quadrotors (four-bladed helicopters) today. One of his many talents is website development, and he helped get the wiki off the ground.”

iMediaEthics: How many people are in the Professional Society of Drone Journalists? What is its purpose?

Schroyer: “There are three other people who I list as developers on (, and I maintain regular contact with these people and they contribute ideas and exchange information about drone platforms, practices and regulations. One has a background in disaster reporting, another is an accomplished videographer from Canada (his website is, and the other is a reporter for a major broadcast station in Las Vegas.

“That is the core group at this point, although I get inquiries from others on occasion. Our hope is to bring more journalists in as we educate people on these systems and how to get started in the field. That’s also our purpose, to educate, along with developing a support group of journalists who can lend credibility and professionalism to this emerging field. We have an open membership, and our only requirements are an interest in drone journalism and a willingness to abide to the code of ethics.”

iMediaEthics: What prompted your interest in drones/drone journalism?

Schroyer: I have some science and engineering in my background. My father owns an automotive shop, and my grandfather was a machinist for a coal mining company. I grew up around disassembled motors, big lathes and power tools. I spent my youth building rockets and flying RC planes, with the occasional crash thrown in. My interest in mechanical things led me to study mechanical engineering as an undergraduate.

“But I was also intensely interested in newspapers, the importance of information in a democratic society and news in general. When a fire happened on campus (turned out it was a controlled prairie burn), I ran to report on it for the student newspaper. From then on, I was a journalist, and I earned my bachelor’s in journalism in 2008.

“After a stint in a newsroom and working as a freelancer, I came to the University of Illinois in 2010 to earn a master’s in journalism. There I was introduced to data journalism, social network analysis, evidence-based journalism and social science methods. I worked on a website to map and measure campus crime, and also collected data on lead exposure in Chicago children.

“After earning that degree, I was simply looking for something to do when I thought of the concept of using drones in journalism. I had time on my hands, and I was looking to get back into the RC hobby. I found people who had turned these machines into drones with the help of open-source microcontrollers and off-the-shelf remote sensing equipment. The prospect of ‘drone mapping,’ or obtaining live, high-resolution geospatial data for under $1,000 was very attractive to me.

“I put two and two together, and explored the idea of using these for journalism in a May 2011 blog post ( In November, I started and looked for collaborators to put together reports using data gathered from drones.”

iMediaEthics: What are your hopes or plans for the Drone Journalism Ethics Code?

Schroyer: “The fate of drone journalism will depend on how professionally drone journalists choose to operate. Most people have been introduced to the word ‘drone’ as a pejorative through news reports of collateral damage and civilian deaths. The public perception of journalists already is fairly negative, so drone journalists probably operate in an even more precarious sector of public opinion. But these tools offer great promise to augment public understanding, especially for reporting on human rights and the environment. Adopting a comprehensive code of ethics will help ensure that drone journalists will be able operate and obtain that valuable data.

“That’s my hope. My plans for the ethics code are to continue reaching out to drone journalists for ideas and input, and to edit the code as changes in technology requires.”

Knight Foundation Gave $50,000 for Research into ‘Drones as a News-Gathering Tool’

Earlier this year, the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation gave a $50,000 grant to the University of Nebraska-Lincoln to research “the effectiveness of drones as a news-gathering tool,” according to an Associated Press report.

iMediaEthics wrote to Matt Waite, the professor listed as heading the project, for more information about the project and proposed ethics of drone journalism.  Waite also presented recently about drone journalism at the Online News Associations’ annual conference.

Waite explained to iMediaEthics by email that the grant was to learn how drone journalism would work and how ethics are involved.

“Last November, I started the Drone Journalism Lab at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln’s College of Journalism and Mass Communications as a way to explore using UAVs to do journalism. I could see that the technology was coming on fast, and that there was going to be a lot of opportunities for journalists to use them to do reporting that’s otherwise difficult or expensive.

“We were given a grant from the Knight Foundation to help us do two things, and do them simultaneously. First, explore the practical aspects of using a UAV to do journalism. What does it take? What kind of equipment? What kind of training? How long can they fly? How high? How much can you do with them? Those kinds of questions. The second is to explore what the legal and ethical questions are. What new ethical questions do they raise, if any? What are the decisions that editors will have to make if they are going to use UAVs? What laws come into play? How do UAVs challenge some of our existing ethical practices?

“The reason we’re doing them simultaneously is that I think we can’t really say what the ethical impacts will be without knowing exactly what we can do with them. The truth is, we’ve all seen too many movies, and we have some pretty wild-eyed ideas of what these machines can do. The truth is far less imaginative. So I think sitting around and thinking of ethical quandaries to solve without ever knowing if they were even possible is a waste of time. I’d rather try to solve the problems we’re going to have than to imagine ones we won’t. So I and three undergraduate research students are now exploring these questions. We just published our first stories using a UAV to do journalism at”

In terms of journalism ethics related to drones, Waite asked “Is this a new ethical problem, or an old one with new technology?”  Noting that “a camera in the air is nothing new,” Waite suggested the issue may be “the action” as opposed to how the action was taken.  He wrote:

“Are we concerned about the use of the drone, or about the outcome? For instance, for a brief moment some believed that the topless photos of the Duchess of Cambridge were taken from a drone. They weren’t, but I asked people who asked me about it, so what if they were? Are you concerned about the violation of her privacy or how it was violated? Does the manner in which it was violated really matter more than the fact that it was violated? So the question is, are we focused on the technology or on the action?”

(See iMediaEthics’ reports on European outlets publishing photos of Middleton and the UK royal family’s legal action in response.)

Waite also proposed another question related to drone reporting ethics.

“The one ethical question I can’t answer right now, the one I think is most critical to the idea of drone journalism, is over-supply. We’ve used cameras in aircraft before, but doing it is expensive, so it’s relatively rare that journalists are airborne. But what if it was no longer expensive? What if, instead of one or two or five aircraft at a major news event, you had 50? Or 100? What happens when everyone — journalist, police officer, nosy neighbor — can put their smart phone on one of these things and broadcast video to the world? It’s a good question, and I don’t know the answer.”

iMediaEthics also asked Waite about’s ethics code and if he agrees with or has contributed to the suggested code.  While expressing support for the idea, Waite argued that “some of it is premature” based on current laws for drones.

“I know the folks who are creating that and I applaud their efforts,” Waite wrote.  “We haven’t participated yet, but likely will sometime in the future. I think some of it is solid, I think some of it is premature, and I think it’s all going to change considerably as time goes on, technology gets better and regulations are put in place.”  He added:

“That’s something to keep in mind: We’re talking about the ethics of something that’s not legal to do right now. Professional journalists, because of FAA restrictions, can not go out and get themselves a UAV and start flying it to do journalism for pay. Professional, freelancer, doesn’t matter. The FAA does not allow the commercial use of unmanned aerial vehicles without a permit, and they’re not issuing those permits right now to anyone except government and researchers. We have not applied for one, for a variety of reasons, and as such are living under the rules that govern remote control aircraft pilots who do this as a hobby.

“So, when I say some of the code of ethics is premature, that’s why. We’re talking about a code dealing with how people do a thing they can’t legally do right now. The FAA has been ordered by Congress to open the skies to UAVs by September 2015. So a code of ethics will become important soon enough. If we can get agreement on a single code of ethics, that would be great. But journalism itself doesn’t have a single uniform code of ethics, so we’ll have to wait and see what emerges as we get closer to 2015.”

UPDATE: 10/29/2012 10:57 AM EST: made copy edits

Submit a tip / Report a problem

What will Journalism Ethics for Drone Journalism be? UK Workshop and Univ. of Nebraska-Lincoln Project Both Focus on Drone Journalism

Share this article:

Comments Terms and Conditions

  • We reserve the right to edit/delete comments which harass, libel, use coarse language and profanity.
  • We moderate comments especially when there is conflict or negativity among commenters.
  • Leave a Reply

    Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *