Drone Journalism School Takes Flight With Three-Day Courses

You can expect to see a lot more journalism schools teaching drone reporting soon

Photo Illustration: Diana Quach
Feb 01, 2017 at 12:38 PM ET

Now that enough time has passed for schools to build curriculum around the new Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) rules for unmanned aircraft systems, we will likely begin to see many journalism institutions embracing and teaching drone reporting.

On Monday, the Poynter Institute for Media Studies, a non-profit journalism school, announced it is launching a drone journalism school later this year. In addition to learning how to fly a DJI drone, attendees — who can be reporters, journalism students, teachers, or newsroom managers —will learn about state and federal regulations, legal and privacy issues, and ethical use of a camera-mounted flying robot.

The course costs $295 and will take place over three days in four separate locations — University of Georgia, Syracuse University, University of Wisconsin, and University of Oregon. “One reason we wanted to conduct these workshops is because we were seeing one-day training workshops that are too expensive for journalists,” Al Tompkins, Poynter senior faculty member, said in a statement. “Plus, journalists have unique training needs that are different from others who want to use drones in their work. Journalists will need specialized training around privacy concerns that drones raise in some people’s minds.”

The organization has partnered with Google News, the National Press Photographers Association, and the University of Nebraska-Lincoln’s Drone Journalism Lab. The university was a pioneer in the field, establishing the program in 2011. The founding professor, Matt Waite, has been a leading voice in drone journalism, and cowrote an operation manual for journalists using drones last year.

Another early adopter was the University of Missouri, which started the Missouri Drone Journalism program in 2013. Back then, before the FAA released the new rules of drone regulation (Part 107 of the Federal Aviation Regulations), making it much easier for journalist to get certificates to fly drones, students had to learn by flying drones inside an arena or while studying abroad. Both the Missouri and Nebraska programs received FAA cease-and-desist notices for flying drones outside in 2013.

The upcoming spring semester will essentially be the first in which journalism professors will be able to teach drone labs outside. Rick Shaw, co-coordinator of the Missouri program believes other journalism programs will create drone labs now that there has been enough time after the implementation of Part 107, last August, for educators to learn how to use drones and create lessons to train students to use the device ethically. “This opens up another dimension for storytelling for certain stories,” Shaw told Vocativ, “But this new tool will push the limitations in terms of what is legally considered privacy. If journalists use the tool in a responsible way with full transparency to the public, I think it’ll be accepted.”

Journalism programs often grapple with the proper balance of teaching the foundations of journalism and teaching new technological tools and platforms, but Shaw thinks drones require heavy instruction from J-school professors. “The big difference between drones and other types of tech — whether it be a DSLR camera or 360 [degree] VR [virtual reality] video — is drones imply gravity and gravity implies injury or damage.”

In addition to preventing journalists from crashing drones into bystanders or subjects, Shaw said the Missouri program is taking “aggressive measures” to host workshops and provide classes so he can keep citizen journalists from breaking ethical standards. “Those are the journalists, the individuals, that are going to be a challenge for us because when and if something does go wrong, it will tarnish the reputation of all of us in journalism using drones.”