© 2020 St. Louis Public Radio
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
Available On Air Stations

As the St. Louis Post-Dispatch’s new drone takes flight, what are the ethics of drone journalism?

David Carson, photojournalist with the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, joined St. Louis on the Air to discuss drone journalism.
Kelly Moffitt | St. Louis Public Radio
David Carson, photojournalist with the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, joined St. Louis on the Air to discuss drone journalism.

Last month, with the launch of the aptly-titled “Weatherbird One,” the St. Louis Post-Dispatch made a foray into a new newsgathering realm: drone journalism.

On Wednesday’s St. Louis on the Air, we discussed the ethics of drone journalism with David Carson, photographer with the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, and Mickey Osterreicher, general counsel with the National Press Photographers Association (NPPA).

Here’s a glance at what that looks like: 

What are drones used for in journalism?

Carson said the Post-Dispatch’s drone program is managed by photographer Christopher Lee, who is an FAA-certified remote pilot. That means other photographers can operate a drone commercially under his watch.

So far, the Post-Dispatch has used the drone to give a 360-degree panorama of the new NGA site in north St. Louis and to provide footage of the restoration of the King Louis statue in Forest Park.

But Carson sees the drone’s usefulness applying to far more breaking-news-type situations. He said he wished the newspaper could have operated a drone during the flooding of the Meramec River in December 2015, because the paper had to, instead, rent an expensive helicopter to take aerial footage of the damage. A drone is much more cost-effective, he said.

Osterreicher said that the NPPA considers drones the next natural tool in newsgathering.

“For the most part, news organizations can’t afford helicopters, so this allows them a way of providing a different perspective on news stories,” Osterreicher said. “When you think of natural disasters, for example, if there is a flood or hurricane, you take to the air to get a better perspective.”

What are the ethics of drone journalism?

Both Carson and Osterreicher echoed, however, that the same journalistic ethics that apply to photographers with zoom lenses apply to drone photography as well.

“We’re going to continue to use good journalism ethics,” Carson said. “We’re not going to use the drone to peer into someone’s window. I don’t see making the picture with a drone radically different than me flying over with a helicopter or making a picture from an airplane. I can promise you the Post-Dispatch won’t be using it to peer into people’s windows. We have lenses right now where we could do that from the street, and that’s a violation of people’s privacy. We don’t do that.”

In order to operate drones commercially, as the St. Louis Post-Dispatch and other news organizations across the country are doing, the operators have to be Federal Aviation Administration-certified and abide by Part 107 rules and regulations. We detailed those last fall here.

Carson laid out specific protocol the Post-Dispatch must follow in order to operate a drone:

“You have to operate a drone within your line of sight, you can’t operate it where you can’t see it; your altitude is limited to 400 feet and your speed is limited to 100 miles per hour,” Carson said. “You can’t fly the drone over crowds of people or people who aren’t participating in your shoot. You are limited in your time you can fly before or after the sunset. There are weight restrictions and restrictions on where you can and cannot fly. It has established rules for you to play by, but it will take ethical people to play by those rules.”

Regulating drone use for journalists vs. amateur operators

These regulations are only required to be followed by people operating a drone commercially (for a profit), which is confusing if you see a drone flying high above a crowd or in a place that a drone shouldn’t be flying.

“For me, as a professional news photographer, I see a lot of amateurs go out and fly missions I’d never be able to fly and then I see that appear on news,” Carson said. “That’s this weird thing where you have amateurs doing things and then the media is being accused of violating rules as well.”

Carson said the Post-Dispatch is being very careful to comply with commercial drone regulations to put the public at ease about any impropriety other amateur drone operators might be partaking in. For amateurs, the laws, rules and regulations just have not caught up to those of commercial drone operators.

“We’re all trying to be good stakeholders, but there’s nothing to stop somebody from coming along with their drone and being a bad actor,” Osterreicher said. “Unfortunately, it is hard to determine whose drone is whose. That’s one of the reasons for registration and identification numbers on each drone. We’re all being painted with the same broad brush, which is one of the reasons, from the NPPA’s point of view, we want to do things as properly as we can so we don’t draw the ire of the public and they get an idea of what an important newsgathering tool this is.”

St. Louis on the Air brings you the stories of St. Louis and the people who live, work and create in our region. St. Louis on the Air host Don Marsh and producers Mary EdwardsAlex Heuer and Kelly Moffitt give you the information you need to make informed decisions and stay in touch with our diverse and vibrant St. Louis region. 

Stay Connected
Kelly Moffitt joined St. Louis Public Radio in 2015 as an online producer for St. Louis Public Radio's talk shows St. Louis on the Air.

Our priority is you. Support coverage that’s reliable, trustworthy and more essential than ever. Donate today.

Send questions and comments about this story to feedback@stlpublicradio.org.