I never planned to get in trouble with a federal agency.
About this time last year, my organization – the College of Journalism and Mass Communication’s Drone Journalism Lab at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln – was asked to stop flying drones by the Federal Aviation Administration.
Matt Waite, the lab’s founder, sent me a text briefly explaining the situation and how we’d go forward.
It’s bewildering getting a letter like that from a federal agency, but at the same time it was reassuring to know that the work that we were doing was cutting-edge enough to be, you know, possibly illegal.
Let me rewind.
In the fall of 2011, Waite was a guest lecturer in my journalism 101 class when he preached about investigative journalism and the intersection of technology and reporting.
As a still-impressionable freshman who was and is a bit of a technophile I thought: “I should get to know this guy.”
In November, Waite had officially created the lab, and I offered my help as a research assistant.
My role was to write for the lab’s blog and to study the ethics of using drones to report.
I flew some of our drones – the DJI phantom and our fixed-wing – but that wasn’t my focus.
Ben Kreimer, then a history and broadcasting student at UNL, was our engineer. He built several systems and worked out some of the kinks.
This side project put me in an interesting position as a reporter.
Let me be clear: I want journalists to be allowed to use drones. I think journalism needs to harness all kinds of communication technologies to tell stories.
I have biases, and I’m able to work around them.
At this point, I’m not sure how many stories I’ve written about drones.
In all of them, I still use the same reporting techniques as any other stories, and I still work to make sure my reporting is balanced.
In my latest drone story, I anecdotally refer to the common response: “I’ll shoot down your drone.”
It’s a common viewpoint – that’s why it’s in the story.
Beyond that, I avoid writing directly about UNL’s lab, or about Waite.
If you’re a student journalist, I encourage you to find topics that you care about and make that your beat. If you’re able to keep your own opinions out of the mix, having a personal connection might make you a better reporter.
Getting that letter from the FAA proved that the government and the public need good journalism to understand what’s going forward.
Policy, regulation and law is inherently complicated, so boiling that down into useful, coherent information is entirely what’s needed.
Find your passion and report it.