Despite the FAA’s regulations prohibiting the use of drones by news outlets, the Little Rock, Ark., ABC affiliate says it’s not breaking any rules because the station doesn’t own the drone that’s being used to take the video it’s aired. “This video is being used to advance the story and advance public information,” says News Director Nick Gentry.
KATV Stands Behind Its Use Of Drone Video
A Little Rock, Ark., TV station is not backing off from airing footage shot from a drone, despite a warning from the Federal Aviation Administration that commercial drone photography is illegal.
“This video is being used to advance the story and advance public information,” says Nick Gentry, news director at Allbritton’s ABC affiliate KATV, who has included drone-shot footage in his tornado coverage. “We don’t use it because it’s cool.”
KATV’s broadcasting of drone footage, which it has done periodically for the last six months or so, came to the attention of the FAA last week after the station aired video showing the destruction caused by tornadoes on April 27.
Lynn Lunsford, the FAA public affairs manager who made the call, says he learned KATV aired the video from an Arkansas Democrat-Gazette newspaper reporter. Lunsford can’t elaborate on what transpired, saying only that he gave Gentry information on the agency’s regulations prohibiting the use of drones by news outlets.
“They wanted to inform me that they are aware of our drone and aware of our driving it, and in the FAA’s eyes that is a violation,” Gentry says.
Matt Waite, the University of Nebraska, Lincoln journalism professor who runs the school’s Drone Journalism Lab, says news outlets are flirting with trouble when they use drones before FAA safety regulations are in place.
“What we are witnessing is a car crash in slow motion,” he says. “Nothing good would come from just unfettered, unregulated, uncontrolled access to the skies. There needs to be some rules here.”
The FAA doesn’t regulate TV stations’ airing video taken by drones, but it currently prohibits news organizations — or any other business, for that matter — from using them for commercial purposes without special permission. The agency has been charged by Congress with coming up with rules for commercial use of the unmanned aircraft systems, or UAS, by September 2015.
Gentry says he doesn’t believe KATV is breaking any rules because the station doesn’t own the drone that’s being used to take the video. The UAS, a small contraption that’s just 18-inches or so wide, belongs to Brian Emfinger, a videographer who has worked at KATV for about six months and the only person who operates it, he says. Emfinger did not return calls for this story.
Gentry says Emfinger is fully in charge of when and how to use the drone, which he takes on shoots with the rest of his equipment, like station-owned cameras. Gentry says “we don’t ever ask Brian” to shoot images with the drone.
About “80% of the time” Emfinger uses the drone to capture images like “pretty weather shots,” Gentry says. “It is his drone to fly. It is not a requirement of the job by any means. It’s just a valuable tool that he supplies whenever he feels comfortable flying it. “
Gentry says he weighs the storytelling value, as well as legality, of video Emfinger shoots using the drone as he would any other footage shot by volunteer contributors. The day the tornado hit, drone owners called Gentry asking if he wanted to rent their UAS to take aerial shots of the devastation, he says.
Gentry says there is no question that Emfinger’s video showing the devastation caused by the deadly storms, among the first footage of the destruction aired, was important.
“When it first aired, I think it really grabbed everybody’s attention and showed that this is huge,” Gentry says. “His use of the drone and our airing it really got the message out of how devastating this tornado was. “
Subsequent videos shot from the drone have also played a role in furthering the story, he says. Last Thursday, for instance, KATV was able to detail the extent of storm damage by putting an image of a Google map of the area over Emfinger’s aerial video of the affected area.
The legality of drone photography is popping up in the news with increasing regularity.
Less than a month ago, an Ohio videographer was charged with a felony after refusing to ground his camera-toting drone.
In February, a Hartford, Conn., photographer filed a lawsuit claiming police violated his First and Fourth Amendment rights when they demanded he stop flying his drone over a fatal car crash, capturing video. Although the photographer, Pedro Rivera, works for WFSB, Hartford’s CBS affiliate, he was not operating the drone on behalf of the station at the time.
In January, journalists’ Twittersphere lit up after the Spokesman-Review in Spokane, Wash. posted a video shot from a drone on its website.
Waite says journalists have a reason “to be itchy about this,” as drone video “has a very clear First Amendment purpose. It’s valuable to the public.”
But news outlets shouldn’t cynically use drone video from freelancers and citizen journalist and hope the “FAA turns a blind eye to it.”
“Without rules of the road, we’re putting ourselves at risk,” he says. “We on the ground need to be reasonably assured that we’re safe.”
Gentry says safety is Emfinger’s No. 1 priority when flying his drone. But he insists there is nothing illegal about using the video shot after Emfinger makes sure all’s clear.
“His video is not unlike other video that is submitted to us,” Gentry says. “We’ve had other people give us their video, and we’ve used that too.”
KATV, along with the other Allbritton stations, have been sold to the Sinclair Broadcast Group pending FCC approval.