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University of Wisconsin–Madison

Local markets are adopting drones, and facing ethical issues

Drones aren’t just for large newsrooms.


Brittany Schmidt, journalist and reporter for WBAY-TV in Green Bay, said drones are especially important for small and mid-size news markets.

“Instead of talking about the remodeling of this huge, 80,000 square foot building, we now have the chance to literally show people from a bird’s eye view how big this project really is, and I think it helps put the story in perspective,” she said.

The use of drones is getting increasingly common among local news channels and private people at the same time, raising ethical issues.

To discuss about the ethical perspectives of using drones and how important it is for an operator to get training before using a drone, Schmidt and Will Sentowski, photographer and drone operator at WBAY-TV, answered questions about how small-markets can use drones to tell better stories.

Sentowski, photographer and drone operator of WBAY-TV in Green Bay answered questions attended a drone training in June held in the School of Journalism and Mass Communication at UW-Madison.

Q: You got your first license to operate drones. How is your experience with it so far?

A: So far, so good…save for one kind of expensive crash. Although it takes awhile to do all your pre-flight checking for safety, once airborne, the drone provides some beautiful pictures that a proper journalist can use in a multitude of ways. It’s also very fun to fly, but a little on the stressful side so far, since as somewhat of a novice pilot, I’m more worried about safety than video quality. The more I fly, the more comfortable I’ll be with my aircraft.


Q: What kind of ethical issues do you face while using a drone for a story?

A: We professional Part 107 licensees care a great deal about ethics and safety. In today’s polarized times, there are lots of people who oppose drone use by newsgathering agencies without any facts to base their fears upon. It’s up to us to educate the public by using these aircraft responsibly. No hovering right outside somebody’s window to peer inside, and no loitering over a private residence w/o a valid newsgathering reason (for instance, if police are digging up a backyard looking for bodies.) The more that we use these aircraft in a responsible and safe manner, the more the public will hopefully see that there’s nothing to fear or be mad about from a drone in a licensed operator’s control.


Q: As drone journalism gets more popular, is it also increasing ethical problems in terms of using drones in private properties and security restricted areas? How ethics are being followed?

A: Ethics violations of privacy are far more common from hobbyist operators than us Part 107 professionals. Unfortunately, the public often doesn’t know the difference. Many stations, like WBAY, draft policies that are available to the public (and distributed to local law enforcement) detailing our usage of drones, and our commitment to doing so in a safe and ethical manner. And we stick to those policies. As for secure areas, we generally steer clear, but we do maintain the right to fly nearby them but often not over. Some examples would be a local power plant (we could legally fly over the river near it, but not over it) and a local prison (forbidden to fly over it by state law-possibly challenge-able in court, but we’ll err on the side of caution and avoid the area.) Usually, plain old common sense and good judgment get the job done.


Q: Do you own a drone, and if so, how many? How often do you use them? Were there any complaints about using drone, such as violating privacy, disturbing the general public or for security reasons?

A: I only own a couple of toy drones. WBAY owns three: two for newsgathering, and one for our commercial production department. We use them usually at least once a week, and are always seeking out new, but safe, avenues to utilize them. So far, I don’t think we’ve had any complaints from the public, due to the restrained and educated way we deploy our aircraft. Not to say that won’t be the case in the future, though, you never know.


Q: Do you recommend drone training? If yes why? Does it help to be more cautious about ethical issues while using a drone?

A: I heartily recommend drone training from professionals, such as the Poynter workshop we took part in. I don’t think I would have been a worthy pilot had I relied solely on online instruction to pass my Pat 107 exam. We learned so much more than just what answers to put on the test. It definitely made us better, safer operators. I am quite grateful for the opportunity. It really was my launch pad (pardon the pun) into the world of UAS operations. Can’t wait to do even more!

To get more insights of using drone, Schmidt said the days of having a helicopter to send out for aerial views are fading unless you are in the top 30 markets. Having a drone operator allows the reporter, the photographer, even the entire newsroom, to think beyond the story and outside of the box for viewers. In journalism school, you learn the basics of videography and varying shots of tight, medium and wide. Well a drone allows you to go well beyond that and truly tell a complete story that will keep the viewers’ attention.


Q: What are the ethical issues you have confronted so far in terms of using drones in your stories?

A: I haven’t personally run into too many ethical issues when using drone footage for my stories because I typically use it for redevelopment projects or similar-type stories. However, I can certainly see where ethics could play a major role in getting video for a story. I think first and foremost we have to ask ourselves what the drone video will be used for and what it adds to the story. There always needs to be a reason and it has to be a group conversation within your newsroom. For example, if there is a missing child in a wooded area, would a news stations drone help or hinder the search? I think ethics should always be part of the conversation when pertaining to a story, maybe even more so when you are not limited to video on the ground.


Q: Do you recommend training before using drones?

A: Yes, yes and more yes. I think training for drones is vital to the use of the video, both productively and ethically. I think it’s also important because a drone operator should know their rights as well. Just because someone doesn’t want you getting video of their building because it’s been condemned, doesn’t mean you have to pack up and go home. Know where you can legally stand and operate your drone. You also have to be legally licensed to operate one in the news world.


Q: Do people or institutions complain about violating privacy, security concerns or disturbance while operating drones?

A: I have not personally had people or institutions complain about their violation of privacy when using a drone. Again, I am not a drone operator so I am not the one actually getting the video, but I have used drone footage in my daily stories. I think it goes back to the basics and you have to ask yourself: What the video will add, what could it take a way, and do I really need it to tell a complete and factual story? I think people are more familiar with drones than they used to be, but that doesn’t mean you should fly it into someone’s backyard.

I recently did a story about the refurbishing of the Brown County Court House dome and we were able to get really neat shots from up above. We talked so much about its importance to the Green Bay skyline and how the unique copper dome stood out and with the drone, we were actually able to capture those moments for viewers. Video is extremely powerful for viewers and I think by using the drone video in this story, we were able to connect with them on a different level.