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When Journalism Becomes a Game of Drones

July 29, 2013

By Scott Pham

Drone-JournalismIn just five years from now, 7,500 licensed unmanned aircrafts — commonly known as drones — will fly the skies above United States soil. By 2030, there will be 30,000.

However, these numbers are conservative. At this very moment, the popular drone hobbyist community DIY Drones boasts 40,000 members. Drones are not the technology of some unknown future. They are a fact of our lives.

That is why, when I received a request to attend a state legislative hearing for a bill to virtually ban all drone flight in the state, the whole thing felt a little ridiculous.

My colleagues and I started the Missouri Drone Journalism Program late last year to figure out if and how journalists could tell compelling stories with these small, unmanned flying vehicles.

We were by no means the first to consider using drones for journalistic purposes; I drew inspiration from forerunners like Matthew Waite at the University of Nebraska, who established one of the very first programs for investigating the use of these battery-powered aircrafts in journalism.

While the willingness to tread new waters in news coverage was admirable, the early efforts were missing an essential element: content. And isn’t that the whole point?

The most obvious journalistic use for drones is to cover events that pose extreme obstacles — public protests, crime and natural disasters — for photojournalists on land. But documenting those kinds of phenomena requires advanced technology and skills that we could not develop in a short period of time. Moreover, it’s nearly impossible to cover most of those stories under current FAA regulations.

Instead, my program focused on stories around agriculture and the environment on public lands. The footage might not be epic, but it was feasible to capture, and it was the best defense against the skeptics.

I deeply underestimated the skeptics. The trouble started early, when we were getting attention from blogs and newspapers. After an interview, one television reporter alerted us to something we missed: The Missouri General Assembly was considering a bill that would ban the use of drones by most people.

Like a lot of legislation in the Midwest, Missouri House Bill 46 started as a reaction to a misunderstood piece of news. (That year, Missouri would also try to outlaw the United Nation’s “Agenda 21.”)

Rumors had been circling conservative blogs that the EPA was using drones to spy on feedlots in Nebraska. (For the record, those claims have been thoroughly debunked.) In response, Republican Representative Casey Guernsey crafted a bill that would prevent just about anyone but police from using drones.

It’s easy to imagine the reporter’s glee when he had the opportunity to be the very first person totell the Representative about my program.

“You’ve got to be kidding me,” said Guernsey in the interview. “That’s enormously disturbing.”

Guernsey’s staff asked me to attend an early hearing at the General Assembly’s Agri-Business committee, which Guernsey happened to chair. I watched as the Representative — a young, slim man just a few years older than myself — went through the procedures of opening the hearing. He then awkwardly walked around the legislator’s seating to the other side of the room where he sat at a desk and explained his support for HB 46.

I was shocked to hear him actually recount the rumors of the EPA drones. When one of the few Democrats on the committee pressed him on whether he was certain the EPA was using drones, Guernsey only offered, “It was all anyone was talking about back home.”

As I watched what was happening before me, I couldn’t help but feel angry. On one level, there’s the simple frustration anyone has when someone else interferes with your plans. But it’s quite another thing to get caught up in one man’s misinformed battle with the federal government. Read more at Mashable.

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