Newly published research from a University of Texas at Arlington communication team offers a groundbreaking perspective on the controversial use of unmanned aerial vehicles in journalism and mass communication, or “drone journalism.”
The remotely guided aircraft gained prominence in the military’s hunt for suspected terrorists in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Such drones can be large, some about the size of small planes, which operate at higher altitudes and serve various functions.
Drone use by journalists and private citizens carries risks and rewards as concerns about privacy gain widespread attention.
Domestically, much smaller drones have been used to
capture photographs and video images on private property without an owner’s permission.
Until now, there has been no formal research and academic writing on the use of
such smaller drones by news organizations and private citizens.
The UT Arlington team analyzed the first eight documented
cases of drones being used in journalism, one of which involved pig blood being
funneled into a Dallas river last year. They found that there are significant
issues that the Federal Aviation Administration will need to address or, they
predict, legislative bodies will have to get involved.
“The FAA has been promising new guidelines but nothing has
happened, and many people are playing with these devices and trying them out,”
said Mark Tremayne, assistant professor of broadcast communication in the UT Arlington College of Liberal Arts and lead author on the paper “New Perspectives
from the Sky: Unmanned Aerial Vehicles and Journalism.” The research appears online
in the journal Digital Journalism.
He pointed to privacy, trespassing, legal and other issues
as a reason for closer examination by academics on a broader level.
Beth Wright, dean of the College of Liberal Arts, said the
work by Tremayne and Clark “demonstrates how essential it is to assessing
technological developments, within a context, informed by an understanding of
their social impact on the ethical and legal dimensions of their use.”
She added that it also answers a 2010 directorate by the
National Science Foundation for future research in the behavioral sciences, which
is data-intensive, multidisciplinary, collaborative and problem-oriented.
A prominent theme of drone journalism usage was
anti-authoritarianism. Many of the cases involved aerial footage of either
anti-government protests or secretive government activities. In several cases,
citizens armed with this new technology were capturing images they probably
considered unlikely to be shown on nightly newscasts, and so they obtained the
video themselves and distributed it over the Internet.
In Dallas, a UAV enthusiast piloted his camera-equipped
drone near a meatpacking plant in January 2012, soaring the device to 400 feet.
To test his equipment, he took photos of the Trinity River. When he retrieved
the remote-controlled aircraft, he noticed something unusual in the pictures: a
red stream, which appeared to be blood, leaking into a river tributary.
The pilot alerted Texas environmental authorities, who then
launched an investigation. In December, a grand jury handed down several
indictments against the owners of the Columbia Packing Company for discarding
pig blood into a creek. Neighbors had complained about the noxious fumes and
other issues for some time, according to the local news. But investigators
didn’t get involved until the drone pilot took his pictures.
Tremayne and Clark agree that the high quality navigation
systems and dramatically decreased costs of drones will spur media
organizations and private citizens to purchase them.
“These drones are increasingly sophisticated and may be
used in cases where flying a helicopter would pose a safety threat for the
pilot,” Tremayne said. “For newsrooms figuring out how to pay for a helicopter,
fuel and a pilot, the drones -- which can cost from $500 to a few thousand
dollars, may be the way of the future.”
The University of Texas at Arlington is a
comprehensive research institution of about 33,800 students and more than 2,200
faculty members in the heart of North Texas. Visit www.uta.edu to learn more.