Our Opinion: An unhealthy drone in the air

News Tribune editorial

Grounded.

The federal government has clipped the wings of journalism drones operated by the University of Missouri and the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.

Researchers at the two journalism schools were testing the practicality of using unmanned drones to provide aerial photography and video of news scenes in remote or inaccessible areas.

Not so fast, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) warned in a letter to the two schools. “Operation of this kind may be in violation of the federal aviation regulations and result in legal enforcement action,” the FAA wrote.

We understand and appreciate the need for aviation rules.

Apparently, so does Scott Pham, who works with the University of Missouri’s KBIA-FM. “There is a process for flying over a natural disaster zone, one of the obvious positive uses, but it is a lengthy, difficult process that is not well-suited to journalism,” he said.

A challenge for journalists is reporting a news story without interfering with rescue, evacuation, firefighting or other emergency response efforts.

For example, drone researchers might study how to report on the path of a spreading wildfire without impeding aerial, fire-suppression efforts.

Pham said the university will confine its research to indoor flying, although we fail to see much merit in that.

Drone journalism, however, does raise some additional thoughts.

First, if drone journalism takes off, it is likely to be piloted and popularized by the paparazzi, who supply candid celebrity shots to the tabloids. Kardashians everywhere and sunbathing duchesses, beware.

And the FAA order indicates hypocrisy is soaring at the federal level.

Shutting down university research and instruction is the government whose National Security Agency records our cellphone calls and whose Transportation Security Administration searches our bags and scans us with metal detectors.

A federal government insistent on gathering information for itself while impeding information gathering by journalists is not a healthy trend.

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