SPJ Quill cover story captures important points on ethical use of drones

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Every year, Quill, the national magazine for the Society of Professional Journalists, produces one issue on journalism ethics.

As David Wolfgang, a PhD student in Journalism at the University of Missouri, reports in the ethics issue cover story, there's many ideas floating around how to handle difficult ethical questions presented by unmanned aircraft:

Privacy laws differ from state to state, but the basic rule is that an individual cannot use technology to peer into a place where a person has a “reasonable expectation of privacy” — where that person should feel safe in letting their guard down and not expect to be recorded. The more private the location — like a person’s private home — the more reasonable it is for a person to feel secure in the location.

It appears from the story that there's a consensus about the need to maintain existing ethical expectations for journalists, but views differ about whether unmanned aircraft, commonly called "drones," re-write or generate any additional rules.

Regulation is another area where opinion tends to diverge. Tight regulation could appease populist outcry against domestic use of this new technology, but it would restrict the reporter's ability to collect important information. Exactly where to draw the line is being discussed in more than two dozen states who are producing drone legislation, even though it seems the FAA will have the final say when they produce integration rules (expected in 2015).

While our current code of ethics does mention the need to work around regulation "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," it's imperative to note that many of these integration rules are dealing with safety.

One of the two items more important than regulation in the drone journalism ethics pyramid is safety. In other words, putting the public in danger so you can deploy an unmanned aircraft for a story is unethical.

Posted on May 21, 2013 .