News & Publishing

Eyes in the Skies: Drones Deliver News

By Gretchen A. Peck

The manufacturers of flying eyes in the sky prefer that you not call them drones. It seems the term has acquired a bad rep, thanks to the legacy of weaponized systems and the fear that they’ll become the next method for spying on U.S. citizens. The makers, as well as the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), prefer to use less colloquial terms, such as unmanned aircraft system (UAS) or unmanned aircraft vehicles (UAVs).

“The association that lobbies for unmanned vehicles had a conference last year, and if you were part of the media and you wanted to access WiFi there, the password was ‘dontsaydrones.’ They absolutely hate that word,” said Matt Waite, professor and founder of the Drone Journalism Lab at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.

“They know that the well has been poisoned, and the argument against the word is that it undersells the complexity of the technology,” Waite continued. “Drone makes it sound stupid, makes it sound less than it really is. I’m of the mind that the word ‘drone’ is here to stay, because it’s a single syllable, and no one is going to change a single-syllable word for ‘unmanned aerial systems,’ ‘unmanned vehicles,’ or ‘remotely powered aircraft,’ which is my current favorite. But we’ve conflated the word drone to mean everything from the $30 toy that’s the size of the palm of my hand or sits on my desk, to the $130 million Global Hawk, which is as big as a fighter plane and one of the most complicated aircraft systems on the planet. … What that does is open up the opportunity for anybody to apply whatever phobia, bias, and insecurity they want to the word.”

No matter what you call them, this seems certain: The United States has a love-hate relationship with drones, and the culture is influencing how quickly journalists will be able to legally leverage them.

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Published in Editor & Publisher magazine, August 2014

P.S. I’m sharing this article again in 2018. Much has changed in the time since it was written.


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