One of the most notable aspects of post-industrial modernity is that, as of today, the pace of the ongoing technological progress attained a clearly defined exponential momentum, which in turn challenges the validity of people’s conventional outlooks on what the notions of ‘privacy’ and ‘journalism’ stand for.
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The soundness of this suggestion can be illustrated, in regards to the fact that it now became possible for private citizens to be in the position to take aerial shots/videos of the important events in the making (newsgathering), as well as to spy on others (surveillance).
The development in question has been brought about by the recent breakthroughs in the field of avionics technology, which dramatically increased the affordability of the so-called ‘unmanned aerial vehicles’ (UAVs), or as they are informally referred to – drones. The term in question applies to the autonomously flown aircraft, as well as to those that fly in the remotely controlled mode.
However, the newly emerged newsgathering/surveillance opportunities, in this respect, appear to stir much of a public controversy – the direct consequence of the fact that the practice of drone-based newsgathering can be defined; as such that violates the provisions of the U.S. Constitution’s Fourth Amendment.
As Schlag (2013) aptly pointed out, “Under the Fourth Amendment, Americans are guaranteed a certain degree of privacy through the right ‘to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effect against unreasonable searches and seizures’” (p. 12).
At the same time, forbidding citizens to use drones, as the mean of gathering and publicizing information of a social significance, would clearly transgress the Constitution’s First Amendment, concerned with protecting freedom of speech, as the fundamental principle of how American society functions.
Therefore, it does not come as a particular surprise that during the course of recent years, there have been published a number of analytical articles that discuss the pros and cons of legitimizing the concerned practice from a variety of different perspectives.
Among the main advantages of using drones to gather information is being usually mentioned the sheer cost-effectiveness of the practice in question. According to Holton, Lawson and Love (2015), “Even the most effective UAVs available for journalistic purposes cost less than $1000 and can be operated at a fraction of the cost of their heavier and less reliable helicopter counterparts” (p. 638).
The advocates of drone-based newsgathering also point out to the fact that drones allow the types of live news-coverage that used to be considered impossible earlier (such as providing people with the aerial glimpse of a natural disaster in making, for example).
After all, due to being unmanned, drones can be flown even under the circumstances that most pilots would have found intolerable, “Drones… allow journalists access to places that are dangerous or unreachable, and they provide an aerial view that captures images in ways that photographs taken from the ground cannot” (McIntyre, 2015, p. 160).
Finally, there is a good rationale in believing that drones can help the law enforcement agencies to tackle the task of ensuring public safety. As Clarke (2014) noted: “Drones (provide)… relatively very safe and quick reconnaissance at emergency scenes, resulting in effective and relatively safe tactical responses” (p. 240).
Nevertheless, there are also those who believe that the concerned type of newsgathering/surveillance is socially counter-beneficial, because there are some rather substantial cons to it, as well. Alongside with the earlier mentioned fact that drones can be used to violate one’s privacy, it is commonly alleged that the practice of flying drones (some of them weight up to 150 kg.) over the densely populated areas, represents an acute threat not only to the citizens’ right to confidentiality, but also to their very lives.
Moreover, it is often suggested that the drone-based paradigm of newsgathering undermines the integrity of American society from within, because it establishes the objective preconditions for Americans to continue growing ever more intellectually marginalized. After all, it does not represent any secret that it is specifically the tabloid-type of journalists (paparazzi), who seem to be much more excited about the drone-enabled newsgathering opportunities, as compared to what it is the case with the mainstream journalists.
In fact, because of these newly emerged opportunities, some people claim that it is only the matter of time before journalism transforms into ‘voyeurnalism’, defined as a “corrupted journalism… in which information regarding events and issues is gathered and presented that is not ‘in the public interest’, but rather is ‘what the public is interested in’” (Clarke, 2014, p. 240).
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Nevertheless, it is specifically due to the Federal Aviation Administration’s (FAA) stance on the issue that drones are not being used quite as widely for newsgathering, as they could have been.
This simply could not be otherwise – the representatives of this Federal agency persist in claiming that the concerned practice is unlawful, because it can be used for moneymaking, “The FAA considers any use of a UAV for profit or by a for-profit organization, even if the use of the UAV does not specifically generate profit, to be commercial activity and therefore banned” (Holton, Lawson, & Love, 2015, p. 636).
What is especially peculiar, in this respect, is that the bureaucrats in question do not even bother to explain since when it became an offense in America for people to resort to the technologically advanced means of generating income. Thus, there is indeed a good reason to expect that, as time goes on, the debate of whether the practice of using drones for newsgathering/surveillance should be legalized or not, will continue to remain acute in the near future.
Still, for those whose ability to think in terms of logic has not been completely atrophied, this specific issue may hardly appear controversial. The reason for this is apparent – it does not represent any challenge to expose just about every claim, concerned with deeming aerial drone-newsgathering/surveillance ‘dangerous’ or ‘immoral’, as utterly fallacious.
After all, it does not take a particularly analytical individual to realize that the most ardent critics of drones as ‘evil’ gadgets, designed solely for the purpose of invading people’s privacy, consist of neocons, who simultaneously promote the idea that the FBI and NSA should be allowed to tap into people’s phones and to arrest citizens, without having obtained a court consent – all for the sake of making America ‘safer’.
It is quite notable, in this respect, that the same individuals would not be overly concerned if it was solely up to the government to violate people’s privacy with the help of drones.
After all, as Bennett (2014) aptly noted: “The drone was initially developed for government applications and only afterwards transitioned to private ones” (par. 4). Yet, when journalists and private citizens started to use drones to gather information, the self-appointed representatives of the ‘moral majority’ began to refer to this practice as such that contradicts the Fourth Amendment.
In order for us to make sense out of this ostensible phenomenon, it needs to be mentioned that, even though America’s top-officials never cease proclaiming that the country’s mainstream Media are ‘free’, this in fact is far from being the actual case. Apparently, only a few people are capable of understanding the simple fact that American Media cannot be ‘free’ by the virtue of being owned by the representatives of the country’s oligarchy, which share the same socio-political and economic agenda.
Therefore, contrary to what many people believe, American mainstream Media do not function as merely the information-channeling mediums, but as the instruments of subjecting ordinary citizens to the different forms of psychological manipulation. In its turn, this led to the situation when, as of today, for as long as Americans have not seen a particular event being covered on TV, there is no way for them to learn that this event actually did take place.
Yet, there is one important precondition for America’s mainstream Media to be able to manipulate with people’s opinions, and to consequently affect the essence of political dynamics in this country – to be provided with a monopoly on distributing information. This explains the FAA’s negative stance on the idea that drones should be recognized as the legitimate tool of journalism – such a development would inevitably result in causing more and more citizens to wonder about many things that the government would not like them to.
After all, one’s ability to purchase and to fly a drone for the purpose of newsgathering/surveillance, automatically presupposes the concerned individual’s familiarity with social Media, such as Facebook or YouTube – the only alternative sources of information in America’s media-space, dominated by a few large media-corporations.
Therefore, the ‘public’ outcry against the use of drones by private individuals is artificially induced, “No court cases have been reported in which someone sued a journalist for violating his privacy by gathering information with a drone” (McIntyre, 2015, p. 162). It is all about money and power, as usual, rather than about ‘morality’ or ‘safety’. The country’s rich and powerful are aware that information is power and they do not want to share it with anybody else – pure and simple.
In light of the above-stated, there can be only a few doubts that drone-based newsgathering is indeed thoroughly appropriate – even if assessed from the legal perspective. The FAA can threaten people with the prospect of being administratively/criminally persecuted for flying drones all it wants, but this organization’s currently enacted drone-related regulations are essentially bylaws, which mean they can be easily overruled with the references being made to the fundamental provisions of the U.S. Constitution.
Therefore, the journalists’ right to use drones on the line of their professional duty cannot be restricted. The same can be said about the practice of using drones for surveillance – fearing that they may invade one’s privacy simply does not make any sense in the age when the very notion of ‘privacy’ has grown utterly outdated.
Those who oppose drone-technology, as such that can enhance journalism/law enforcement, act contrary to this country’s national interests – regardless whether they realize it or not. I believe that this conclusion is fully consistent with the line of argumentative logic, deployed throughout the paper.
Bennett, W. (2014). Civilian drones, privacy, and the federal-state balance. Retrieved from https://www.brookings.edu/research/civilian-drones-privacy-and-the-federal-state-balance/
Clarke, R. (2014). Understanding the drone epidemic. Computer Law & Security Review, 30(3), 230-246.
Holton, A., Lawson, S., & Love, C. (2015). Unmanned aerial vehicles, Journalism Practice, 9(5), 634-650.
McIntyre, K. (2015). How Current Law Might Apply to Drone Journalism. Newspaper Research Journal, 36(2), 158-169.
Schlag, C. (2013). The new privacy battle: How the expanding use of drones continues to erode our concept of privacy and privacy rights. Journal of Technology Law & Policy, XIII, 1-22.