When a story broke last week that news and gossip site TMZ had applied for a permit to put a drone in the air, the piece leapt to the top of the Drudge Report, as minds began to spin with visions of robot copters hovering over celebrities’ every move.

The report turned out to be false, with clear denials from both TMZ and the Federal Aviation Administration that any such request or permit ever existed.

But in truth, drones are already very much in the journalistic imagination, and our ethical reasoning about them has to move well beyond worst-case paparazzi scenarios.

A technology of the moment

Drones — or Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) — are a battlefield technology quickly moving into government, civilian and commercial use. Civilian drones, derivatives of the Predator and Reaper drones currently used for missile strikes in Afghanistan and Pakistan, enable aerial photography, videography and data-gathering at a small fraction of the cost of airplanes or helicopters.

You can buy a toy drone capable of streaming video to YouTube for a paltry $300 on Amazon. Full-fledged drones — complete with autonomous flying and geolocation capabilities — are on the market for $50,000 to $300,000 but not yet legal to fly in the National Airspace System (NAS).

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After the FAA Modernization and Reform Act became law earlier this year, the agency was set on a breakneck timeline to incorporate commercial drones into the NAS by the end of 2015.

Estimates vary, but some expect between 10,000 and 30,000 drones aloft in the United States by 2020, making for a $90 billion industry in that decade. Already in use for patrolling U.S. borders to deter illegal immigration, UAVs will be deployed in everything from golf course management to fighting wildfires. My own university (University of Wisconsin-Madison) has a permit to experiment with drones to monitor hurricanes.

Gathering information aloft

A moment’s thought reveals journalistic uses far more important than TMZ spying on a Kardashian wedding. Imagine the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear meltdown in 2011. News organizations suspected the government of hiding the extent of the damage and the release of radiation but were powerless to challenge official figures. A drone with cameras and radiation sensors would have provided a fast and cheap check on the official story and represented citizens’ interests.

Here in the U.S., The Daily, a now-defunct tablet-focused daily news source, used a UAV to document the destruction wrought by fatal tornadoes in Tuscaloosa, Ala., in 2011. The footage shows the clear advantage of nimble aerial photography. The Daily drone begins at ground level to show rubble close up, then rises to reveal blocks of devastation.

The reporting prompted an FAA investigation, with no public release of its results.

Projects at the universities of Nebraska and Illinois are exploring drone development for journalism. Matt Waite, a professor of practice in the journalism program at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, is at the forefront.

As part of ongoing research on ethics and digital media practices, I’ve interviewed some journalistic drone developers, including Waite this past October. He told me UAVs could be a regular part of news organization reporting in five to 10 years.

Budding ethical thinking

The small corps of journalistic drone developers are well aware of legal issues, but also report key ethics concerns as they work to deploy robotic technology to capture images and data.

Among the key issues:

Safety: Waite told me that putting a drone up is “essentially launching a flying lawnmower into the air.” With whirring rotors and rudimentary guidance systems, low-end drones would pose serious risks if deployed to, say, count a crowd at a protest.

Conflicts of interest: UAVs have the potential to reignite longstanding concerns about journalists sharing information with law enforcement. Civil libertarians worry that news organizations would become a surrogate for police, sharing images and data the government could not get on its own without a warrant.

Accuracy and context: One of the most heated debates in military drone use centers on the very idea of remote sensing and decision-making. Critics argue that soldiers far removed from the horrors of war make decisions to kill or destroy without context. Though far less lethal, the same danger applies to journalistic uses. By relying on a partially autonomous machine, reporters can distance themselves from the human toll of situations, potentially removing critical context.

The privacy question

Every other ethical question the developers consider, however, pales against their concerns about privacy. The developers I’ve interviewed thus far frame their thinking largely in legal terms, using such constructs as “reasonable expectation of privacy,” “private property” and “public land.”

But as privacy advocates will attest, technological advances are steaming well ahead of the development of law. For instance, precedents limiting private property up to only the start of the National Airspace (500 feet in most cases) could be interpreted to permit videography by drones once they’re incorporated into the NAS.

In the absence of — and in addition to — legal guidelines, news organizations must develop clear ethical principles to guide their drone use.

Journalistic Big Brother

Primary among these principles must be a firm commitment to recognize not only the desire to be left alone on private property, but also the sanctity of public spaces.

The brief spasm over the alleged TMZ drone application was rooted in a larger and deeper concern about the entanglement of media and technology. From the relentless tracking of Princess Diana to the News Corp. phone-hacking scandal, people are concerned not simply about the use of tech tools to invade privacy. The concern is actually about the transformation of reporting into surveillance.

Fears about police and government agency UAV use similarly focus on surveillance — on worries of being constantly watched. If journalism is to distinguish itself from both government activity and gossip mongering, news organizations must commit to refrain from surveillance in both private and public spaces except in the most extraordinary circumstances.

Blowback

Technology development is rife with what are known as “revenge effects” — the unintended consequences of advances designed to solve particular problems. Interceptor missiles are a classic example. They’re designed to prevent missiles from hitting their targets. However, they do so by breaking the missile into smaller pieces still capable of doing significant damage, only now those pieces are spread over a wider area.

Drones hold tremendous promise in journalism. They can be used in investigative environmental reporting, surveying natural disaster damage, monitoring police response to protests, and creating sophisticated mapping.

But they also pose the threat of revenge effects, damaging news media credibility at the precise moment journalism tries to assert its legitimacy and contribution to the public sphere. Citizens will not tolerate drone monitoring by a news media already suffering from historic low levels of public approval.

As the FAA sets on its aggressive course to include drones in the NAS, news organizations and UAV developers have to tackle a broad and public conversation about the ethics of journalistic uses.

“We will be more ethical than TMZ” will not be enough.

Kathleen Bartzen Culver is an assistant professor in the University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Journalism & Mass Communication and associate director of the Center for Journalism Ethics. Long interested in the implications of digital media on journalism and public interest communication, Culver focuses on the ethical dimensions of social tools, technological advances and networked information. She combines these interests with a background in law and the effects of boundary-free communication on free expression. She also serves as visiting faculty for the Poynter Institute for Media Studies.