Drone Journalism Lab publishes operations manual to guide newsrooms

journalism / Article

September 1, 2016 by Matt Waite

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Photos by Samaruddin Stewart.

Matt Waite is a professor of practice in the College of Journalism and Mass Communications and the founder of the Drone Journalism Lab at the University of Nebraska, Lincoln. In 2012, Knight Foundation supported the Drone Lab with a $50,000 prototype grant that was slightly derailed by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) sending the lab a cease-and-desist order and the agency struggling to determine what to do about journalism educators wanting to fly drones. The agency finally released rules this week.

If you’ve been paying attention to drones at all, you know this was a huge week for flying robots. The FAA’s long-awaited rules for the commercial use of small drones took effect on Monday, and thousands of would-be pilots have already taken the required test to get licensed

It’s likely that many hundreds of the eventual thousands of licensed drone pilots will be journalists. Many of them are climbing that first hill this week andtaking the test. The second big hill to climb is professionalizing operations in newsrooms.

Doing so means having written procedures and policies. And we’re here to help you get started.

Today, with support from Knight Foundation, the Drone Journalism Lab is releasing its operations manual as an open source, Creative Commons-licenseddocument (PDF). We want the Drone Journalism Lab Operations Manual to give newsrooms across the United States and the world a foundation to work from. It covers everything from how to conduct a preflight briefing to what ethical issues you should consider before flying a drone.

<p><em>Matt Waite, professor of practice in the College of Journalism and Mass Communications at the University of Nebraska Lincoln, instructs two students of the Drone Journalism Boot Camp on Aug. 12. Waite, with support from Knight Foundation, started the Drone Journalism Lab to help journalists use drones to report news.&nbsp;</em></p>

Matt Waite, professor of practice in the College of Journalism and Mass Communications at the University of Nebraska Lincoln, instructs two students of the Drone Journalism Boot Camp on Aug. 12. Waite, with support from Knight Foundation, started the Drone Journalism Lab to help journalists use drones to report news. 

The manual is a mixture of hard-earned experience in the field, requirements under the FAA’s Part 107 regulations, best practices for drone use, and methods that manned aircraft pilots use to fly airplanes. It defines three roles in each drone flight: The Pilot in Command, the only federally required role in the flight; the Observer; and the Journalist. The pilot is the responsible party under regulation. The observer is there to tell the pilot if something entered the area and is a concern. The journalist is there to ensure that what is needed for the story is being captured. A drone flight could have all three of these roles, or just the pilot. But that means the pilot is taking on extra work, which requires extra caution.

News managers need to be very clear on one thing: The Pilot in Command, by federal regulation, is the final authority on if the drone flies or not. The Pilot in Command holds the license, and will be the one punished by the FAA if something goes wrong. If a licensed drone-pilot reporter says no to a flight because it’s not safe, that’s it. End of discussion. It wouldn’t be the city editor or the news director losing a license or receiving a fine: It would be the pilot. Newsrooms with manned helicopters are used to this: If a manned helicopter pilot says no, that’s it. News managers may not see drones as aircraft and drone pilots as real pilots, but the FAA does.

The manual covers all of this—and much more. We’ve made it an open document so that newsrooms can contribute their ideas and experiences back to it. We’ve hosted the document on Github, which is a social code sharing website that also works pretty well for text documents. Unfamiliar with Github but want to get involved? Open an issue, and tell us what you think we need. An old hand at Github? Fork the document and go wild. We’d love your pull request.

If you just want the manual, we’ve put PDF copies online too. The point is we really think newsrooms need written policies and procedures, and this is a good start.

For more, visit dronejournalismlab.org and follow @mattwaite on Twitter. A version of this post also appears on the Drone Journalism Lab site. 

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