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Drone journalism hovers on edge of news gathering.

COLUMBIA, Mo. -- In addition to learning about Associated Press style and the use of the inverted pyramid, future journalists may have to master the radio controls of remotely operated drones.

Journalism schools at the University of Missouri and the University of Nebraska have launched groundbreaking classes in which students have experimented with using small, unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) to collect video that can be used in multimedia news presentations.

The courses have attracted a lot of attention since GJR first wrote about them in earlier this year. The "NBC Nightly News" featured the MU School of Journalism's class on a national broadcast in March.

They've also generated controversy, as about 30 legislatures across the country are considering bills that would outlaw the use of drones in surveillance that could include journalism. Agricultural interests and organizations such as the American Civil Liberties Union are among those opposing drone deployment, citing concerns about privacy and private property.

For now, the news collection operations are strictly experimental. MU students have practiced using small camera-equipped, battery-powered helicopters to collect images of migrating birds near the Missouri River west of Columbia. For much of this semester they had hoped for the right weather and wind conditions to capture aerial scenes of a Missouri Department of Conservation prairie burn.

Professor Bill Allen, a former environmental reporter at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, teaches the drone journalism course.

"This course introduces students to investigative reporting on environmental, agricultural and natural resource subjects using new technologies," Allen's syllabus says. "Our vision is to help lead the journalism profession legally, ethically, responsibly and innovatively into a new frontier of public service news coverage using this new technology."


The idea for the course came from Scott Pham, the content director at KBIA radio, the university-owned station in Columbia. Pham, who is collaborating in delivering the course, obtained a $25,000 grant to pay for the drones' construction.

About the size of a basketball, the drones get their lift from four propellers that are controlled by a hand-held radio transmitter. Equipped with iPhone or GoPro cameras, the drones can remain airborne for about 17 minutes. Students call them "J-bots."

Drones provide safer and cheaper ways of collecting overhead visuals from remote, dangerous areas. Breaking news, such as floods and other natural disasters, are the types of stories that could be covered. Drones reportedly have been used to collect scenes of two separate news events in Italy, including the Costa Concordia shipwreck.

"I think there's a lot of good explanatory journalism that can be enhanced with images collected by drones that people wouldn't otherwise be able to see," said Gwen Girsdansky, a graduate student who is one of seven graduates and undergraduates taking Alien's class.

But also apparent is a drone's potential value as an investigative tool. For example, a drone could document pollution at large animal agricultural operations or animal abuse at puppy mills.

Perhaps that's why possible drone use has generated so much opposition in the agricultural community. In the Missouri House, State Rep. Casey Guernsey, a Republican from Bethany, is sponsoring a bill that would prohibit a drone's use over private property unless the owner consents.

"If we are moving into an age of news agencies using drones to collect information on private citizens, I'm definitely concerned about that," said Guernsey, who is the chairman of the House Agribusiness Committee.

When the committee heard Guernsey's bill, organizations such as the ACLU, the Missouri Farm Bureau Federation and the Missouri Federation of Animal Owners, testified in favor of it. The bill reads: "No person, entity, or state agency shall use a drone or other unmanned aircraft to conduct surveillance of any individuals, property owned by an individual, farm or agricultural industry without the consent of that individual, property owner, farm or agricultural industry."

Before the committee approved the bill, it adopted an amendment that exempts "a Missouri-based higher education institution conducting educational research or training programs within the scope of its mission ..."

So while the amendment would appear to allow for journalists in training to practice with drones, it would prohibit professional journalists from using them.
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Title Annotation:Investigative Reporting
Author:Ganey, Terry
Publication:Gateway Journalism Review
Date:Mar 22, 2013
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