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Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs), commonly known as “drones,” are a military technology now being developed for civilian and commercial use in the United States. With the federal government moving to develop rules for these uses in U.S. airspace by 2015, technologists, researchers, and news organizations are considering application of drone technology for reporting and data gathering. UAVs offer an inexpensive way to put cameras and sensors in the air to capture images and data but also pose serious concerns about safety, privacy, conflict of interest, perspective, and credibility. This research examines the early ethical considerations among drone journalism developers and digital information activists. It places those considerations against the backdrop of utilitarian ethical theory applied to journalism to suggest additional layers of reasoning that must be applied to drones in reporting. Finally, it suggests articulation of ethical guidelines and transparency with the public as means to address inevitable adverse effects of use of this technology.

Unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) are a technology now impacting on many fields, including journalism and mass communication. Also referred to as drones, these small remotely-guided aircraft have gained prominence through their increased use in the hunt for Al Qaeda leaders in Afghanistan and Pakistan. With increasingly sophisticated navigation systems and dramatically decreased costs, drones are now being purchased and put to use by commercial organizations and private citizens. Traditional journalists and citizen journalists alike are using drones to obtain aerial footage in a variety of locations around the world. The implications for the field of journalism and mass communication are numerous, with practical, theoretical and ethical dimensions. This paper explores these dimensions using an inductive, qualitative approach. This research paper offers a brief history of UAVs, the results of our canvass of cases that could be categorized as drone journalism, the themes that emerge from this case analysis, and an in-depth look at how this technology impacts on journalism and mass communication. Where this new technology fits within surveillance scholarship is also considered.