Two universities operate drones and teach journalism students how to use them

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First Amendment tool or silent snoop?
  • First Amendment tool or silent snoop?
The skill set desired of the modern young journalist keeps getting more and more elaborate. To the ability to interview, write, photograph, videotape, edit, and self-promote on social media (apologies for the skills I've overlooked), add this new cutting-edge facility:

The know-how to operate a drone.

A lot of people don't like what drones do and represent, but that hasn't kept journalism from being tantalized by the possibilities. And now the journalism and communications programs of the University of Missouri (my alma mater) and the University of Nebraska are operating drones and teaching students what to do with them. Here's an overview from fastcompany.com. The Missouri program is brand-new; Nebraska's has been around since late 2011; both are considered experimental. But that's because both schools are feeling their way, not because no one has a clue whether drones can be useful to journalism.

Says the mission statement of Nebraska's Drone Journalism Lab: "Drones are an ideal platform for journalism." The Missouri program is more restrained. "We are anxious to explore the new approaches to information-gathering and storytelling that this new technology promises," says the syllabus for the drone journalism course. "But we also must remember that we cannot be advocates for journalism drones, at least not until the research is done and the evidence is in."

The UAVs (for Unmanned Aerial Vehicles) the two schools use don't look anything like the lethal Predators that quietly stalk and kill for the defense department and CIA. They're gizmos with propellers, and you can pick them up when you're done with them and carry them to the car. Missouri's are put together from ordered parts by an instructor in the computer science and IT program who's a radio-controlled airplane hobbyist. He also patches up the UAVs when students crash them. Check out these pictures of Mizzou students controlling a UAV: they look like little kids flying their first kite or model airplane. Is this cool, or what!

Nebraska has used its drones to document drought in the state. They didn't just take pictures: one UAV collected water samples from the Platte River. Students in the Missouri program, which is a partnership between the journalism school and the local NPR affiliate, KBIA, plan to use their UAVs to cover prairie burns—controlled fires set to maintain prairie land.

So it's all good?

No. The Missouri program was visited recently by Troy Rule, a professor in the university's law school. He gave the students a few things to think about. He also ran them by me.

As eyes in the skies, Rule observes, drones can be used—for instance, to do surveillance along the U.S.-Mexican border and help fight forest fires, each a job UAVs already perform—and abused. Fly a drone above 500 feet and it's in what's called "navigable" air space and subject to the Federal Aviation Administration; fly it below 500 feet and you're in air owned by whoever owns the land below, and subject to legal action for trespass and invasion of privacy. "There are a lot of unanswered questions," says Rule. "Questions to be sorted out. Laws to be written."

They're being written right and left. Fear of drones in the hands of Big Brother is rampant in the U.S. Bill Allen, a professor of science journalism who runs the Missouri program, tells me 14 state legislatures and both houses of Congress have introduced bills to suppress the technology. The Nebraska bill is called the Freedom From Unwarranted Surveillance Act. "The government does not need to have its nose in everybody's backyard or above everybody's farm," said state senator Paul Schumacher of Nebraska this month at a hearing of the unicameral legislature's judiciary committee. The bill Schumacher introduced in January says bluntly, "A law enforcement agency shall not use a drone to gather evidence or other information." The exception is "to counter a high risk of a terrorist attack." The bill says nothing about journalists, nobody from the Drone Journalism Lab spoke at the hearing, and from an aide to Schumacher I got the impression that the senator wasn't aware his state's drone lab existed.

Missouri's bill is another matter. It's called the Preserving Freedom From Unwarranted Surveillance Act, and its language is far more sweeping: "No person, entity, or state agency shall use a drone or other unmanned aircraft to gather evidence or other information" in a criminal or civil proceeding without a warrant. "No person, entity, or state agency shall use a drone or other unmanned aircraft to conduct surveillance of any individual, property owned by an individual, farm, or agricultural industry" without the consent of whoever's being surveilled.

"My bill's focus is not on journalism, but I'm concerned with it," says its author, representative Casey Guernsey. The state journalism school's drone program was far from his mind when he wrote his bill, and a Kansas City TV station, KCTV5, caught the moment when Guernsey found out from a reporter what was afoot at Mizzou. Guernsey was giving an interview at his desk, which sports a placard saying, "Hey HUSA & PETA, Get Your Paws Off Our Laws!"

"You've got to be kidding me!" Guernsey said to the camera. "That's enormously disturbing, actually."

Now that Guernsey knows, he's amended his bill to cut Mizzou some slack. New language allows the use of a drone by a "Missouri-based higher education institution conducting educational, research, or training programs within the scope of its mission." But if his bill puts the kibosh on the use of drones by journalists generally, he doesn't much care. "There are a lot of good news outlets out there," he tells me, "[but] a lot who take investigative journalism to new levels, especially when it comes to agriculture." By levels, he meant depths.

Guernsey represents a section of western Missouri rich in CAFOs—that is, Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations. These are the huge operations damned by documentarians for confining massive numbers of animals in small spaces to eat, get fat, and get slaughtered. Guernsey calls these muckrakers activists posing as investigative journalists and he says, "Considering the lengths they go to to get some of their information, I don't think we can be any too cautious in regulating what they may or may not be able to do with drones.

"I'm not too familiar with what Missouri is doing" with drones, he continues. "They claim it's for reporting on floods. But if it has anything to do with agriculture, I'm going to be enormously pessimistic and probably opposed to it. The bottom line is, it's private land held for private business use. It's not for public consumption what's going on."

But it is—literally, I interrupt. The public consumes the food that's grown on that land.

"I've heard the argument," Guernsey replies. "But the problem is it's still completely off base. The person who's most interested in developing the safest, most reliable food sources are farmers. It's in their best interests, and they've been doing it for generations. For someone who's on average three generations removed from the farm to come in and say 'We know better' is ridiculous. It's borderline absurd."

The Nebraska and Missouri bills both enjoy support from local chapters of the ACLU. An ACLU spokesman in Missouri said Guernsey's bill would actually benefit from being broader. "Technology is leading us down a slippery slope," said the ACLU.

"Even the ACLU testified in favor of it, something I thought would never happen," Guernsey marvels. "The ACLU testified in favor of my bill! In my committee!"

Says Professor Allen, "I completely understand the privacy concerns. But it'll clearly be a First Amendment issue if the news media is restricted in gathering news and doing its watchdog role. What we're trying to do in our course is start finding pathways for journalism to use this technology in a very ethical, public service kind of way."

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