The policy was written by Poynter instructor Al Tompkins, in partnership with stakeholders from DJI, leading research institutions, and the National Press Photographers Association. The guidelines were developed over the course of four workshops training over 300 journalists and educators in drone journalism.
“In addition to exam prep and hands-on drone flight training, our partners and I vowed to produce a ‘code of drone journalism ethics’ that would take into account journalism and photojournalism ethics policies but add the legal considerations for flying in government-controlled airspace and safety concerns that come with remote controlled flight,” says Tompkins.
The guidelines begin by stating that all drone journalists must follow existing laws about drone operation. “Drone Journalism ethics should be even more stringent than other journalism ethics,” writes Tompkins. “It is one form of journalism that is legally regulated by government authorities who control airspace.”
In summary, the drone journalism ethics guidelines state that journalists must keep safety as their “first concern,” flying under a 107 license and behaving responsibly. The guidelines also state that newsrooms have an obligation not to encourage staff to fly without a license by recognizing them for footage captured illegally.
Journalists are also encouraged to apply the same sense of privacy that they would to ground photography to work with a drone. “Would you ‘do that’ if you were capturing the image while on the ground?” asks Tompkins. “If you would not peer over a fence, look into a window or enter private property, how would you justify capturing the same image because you are airborne?”
Drone journalists are encouraged to respect privacy, not to interrupt or seek to influence the events that they are filming, and not to “improperly enhance” video by adding effects that might change the context of a story.
“Carefully consider how slow motion or speeding up effects might affect the editorial integrity of the video,” writes Tompkins. “Slow motion can appear dramatic and change the context of a news story. Video that has been sped up may add false urgency.”
Recognizing that journalists are often influenced by newsroom directors, the guidelines emphasize that when it comes to drone journalism, the pilot in command must be the final say on safety. “Newsrooms should not ask or pressure a drone pilot to fly in a way that the pilot in command considers to be unsafe or legally questionable,” say the guidelines. Additionally, pilots shouldn’t be asked to do anything else while operating the drone.
The guidelines point out that pilots need to practice flight skills continuously to “stay sharp,” and operate safely. They finish by pointing out drone journalists responsibility to “coach others” in this emerging field:
“The public’s perception of drone flights depends on how professionally pilots operate in these early days of this emerging technology,” writes Tompkins. “…It is in your interest and it is in the public’s interest for you to coach other operators, especially other journalists, when you see them flying unsafely, illegally or unethically.”