Nepal quake: Media drone swarm shows ‘need for standards’

Professor who founded U.S. ‘Drone Journalism Lab’ says misuse of camera-carrying UAVs illustrates need for global code of conduct

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The swarm of media outlets using drones to film footage after the Nepal earthquake highlights the need for a journalists’ code of conduct on unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), a U.S. professor has said.

The Nepalese government cracked down on the use of UAVs after complaints from citizens regarding their use after the 7.8-magnitude quake struck the country in late April. Nepal was hit by a second major earthquake on May 12.

Drone operators will now need permission from the country’s aviation authority, the Guardian reported, following complains over their use to collect news and pictures.

Professor Matt Waite of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, and founder of the Drone Journalism Lab, said there was a “stampede” of news organisations bringing drones to Nepal to report on the earthquake.

“It absolutely underscores the need for international media to begin having a standard of practice,” he told Al Arabiya News.

Global codes of ethics over the use of drones to capture images of news events have not yet been firmly established, Prof. Waite said.

“When you put a flying camera in the air you start to expose problems… that as journalists we haven’t thought through yet, that we have not had to confront before,” he said.

Addressing the Arab Media Forum in Dubai, held on May 12 and 13, Prof. Waite showed the audience an image taken from a drone operated by an amateur photographer in Nepal. It illustrated “multiple worries” about drone use, such as the dangers of flying over crowds.

“That is a terrible idea. If this device were to have a problem, if a motor was to go out, if the electronics were to give way, that device is going to come tumbling down,” Prof. Waite said.

Given some drones used by news organisations weigh around six pounds, they could be fatal if they crashed and hit someone.

“If you have a densely packed crowd, somebody will die. No news organization on the planet wants to be a part of that. So we cannot be flying over dense crowds like this until these devices become much more safe and reliable,” Prof. Waite said.

There are also concerns that drone footage of historical sites in Nepal could be used by antiquities thieves to loot sites containing artefacts.

“What I have been told by Nepalese journalists is that the government was concerned with foreign media using drones in Nepal… People were complaining about the number of drone flights that were going on, the drone flights in proximity to them,” he said.

“This Nepal earthquake was one of the first [news events in which] media were truly aware of drones and their power. And they came, and it immediately triggered a ban. And I’m worried that that’s going to happen again.”

The use of drones by the media throws up many ethical issues that journalists may not have considered before, the professor said.

“If we abuse these devices, if we use them improperly, governments are going to shut us down,” he said.

“We have to do it safely, and we have to do it with compassion. We cannot be hovering over the heads of grieving people. We cannot be doing things that put people in danger.”

As well as the ethical issues, there is also uneven government regulation on use of drones worldwide.

In the U.S., for example, you need a pilot’s license to fly even a small, toy-like UAV for commercial use – but not for personal use – a situation that Prof. Waite described as “ridiculous.”

“The United States is among the worst in the world when it comes to drone regulations,” he said.

Prof. Waite also pointed to instances such as the Al Jazeera journalist who was fined $1,120 for flying a drone in Paris in February.

Even Prof. Waite’s Drone Journalism Lab received a ‘cease and desist’ order from the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration for flying drones for commercial purposes, the academic said.

“As journalists we need to be conscious of the fact that to be ethical we need to follow the law,” he said.

“I would like journalists to do something that they are unaccustomed to doing, which is advocating on their own behalf, with their governments, for the ability to use these devices,” he added. “There needs to be a global conversation about this.”

The public is still apprehensive about drones, not least because of the noise they make, the professor acknowledged. But the Nepal earthquakes – though tragic – have also illustrated the value of drones for responsible news gathering, he added. “It has only clarified that this is going to be a significant tool in newsrooms,” he said.