Local Correspondent: Roundtable Discussion Goes in Circles

By Naomi Rubel LaChance

On June 19th, the director of the FBI told the U.S. Senate Committee that the FBI had used drones for surveillance in limited cases over U.S. soil. On June 20th, the WAMC Roundtable, a local radio talk show that hosts journalists and intellectuals who discuss pertinent issues, devoted a ten-minute segment to drones. The panelists were WAMC’s Alan Chartock, newsman Ray Graf, professor of communications at College of St. Rose, WNYT News director Paul Conti, and Rex Smith, editor of the Times Union. Joe Donahue moderated.

The ensuing debate, a veritable floundering, is a product of a lack of specificity, of defined diction, within the debate.

Conti: “I gotta tell ya, this may be surprising, but there have been drones of one kind or another over U.S. soil for a long, long time.”

Graf: “Absolutely.”

Conti: “these happen to be unpiloted. I mean, there’s no human in them, but the police have used aircraft for surveillance… for a long, long time.”

This kind of circularity and vagueness is not uncommon in the ongoing debate about domestic drone use. Consider other issues that we refer to as a “debate.” There’s the gay marriage debate. The abortion debate. The healthcare debate. All of these, more or less, deal with a yes-or-no question. But when it comes to drones, this is not the case. There is no such single thing as a “drone”—they come in all shapes and sizes, and are used for all sorts of applications. It’s strange, then, to talk about a “drone debate. What exactly are we debating? My guess, especially when it comes to the question of domestic drones, is that we don’t really know.

In a segment on targeted killing on June 14, Jon Stewart used his own verbiage to specify which kind of drone he was discussing. “It is an inconceivable breach of universal human rights,” he said, “to tell us about the kill list. The president is killing people with flying robots, and you should not know that.” While obviously satire, Stewart taps into the general bias—and confusion—that is attached to anything relating to UAVs.

And back at WAMC, the panel continued to, if you will pardon the pun, fly in circles:

Graf: “People have been putting cameras on model airplanes for 40 years.”

And later:

Graf: “Because they’re called drones, this is a big deal.”

Then, the kicker:

Chartock: “There’s a point at which Americans cherish their freedom.”

On June 28, Poynter Institute, a Florida-based school for journalism, hosted a webinar called “Covering Drones in U.S. Airspace and in Your Community” in a bid to clarify the issue and bring some precision to the discussion in the media. The course, which was hosted by Vicki Krueger and presented by Ellen Shearer, a professor at the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University, was geared toward “reporters, producers, editors, investigative journalists, people interested in privacy issues and anyone who is interested in new technology and its use in daily life.” The premise of the program was that everyone should be better informed about this issue, and that the burden of educating the public falls in large part to the media.

The course description promised to answer a wide variety of questions:

how the proliferation of drones in civilian life will impact local communities, privacy concerns raised by camera-equipped drones, the impact of the Drone Act and the extent to which it allows the purchase and use of unmanned aircraft for evidence gathering and surveillance, and the dangers and benefits of drones in private and commercial life.

Though drones have long been a part of the domestic sphere, they do not yet appear to have entered the domestic conscience. The course asked questions that remain far from the mind of the average American. The webinar was a crash course in the uses and functions of drones, with the goal of informing and inspiring the media to develop more precise and nuanced tools to cover the issue. A brief video showed types of UAVs and UASs: land drones, water drones, aerial drones, drones the size of a mosquito, and, of course, Predator drones. Drones aren’t just in the air, they aren’t just weaponized, they aren’t just camera-equipped. By the end, participants in the course were able to make distinctions between different species of drones.

Once the FAA integrates drones into domestic airspace, there will be an even greater abundance of privacy and safety issues to debate. The information that the Pynter webinar furnished us with will be invaluable if there is any hope that we will have a fruitful debate. Currently, our instinct to group all drones together is the main obstacle that’s preventing such a debate from happening. The WAMC roundtable focused on drones as a mode of spying and killing. On one hand, this is a reasonable instinct, given that so much of the dialogue surrounding drones has been focused in the military domain. In fact, drones are so closely associated with the military that the media doesn’t seem to know how to respond to their non-military uses. Headlines such as “German Railway Operator Deploys Drones in War on Graffiti Artists,” mark reluctance, or inability, to separate the civilian from the military. The headline “Drones to spy on Nevada Wildlife, not people” may be clever, but it also perpetuates a myopic bias in terms of the general purpose of a drone. There is a difference between surveillance and spying, but people treat the two words as synonyms.

I recently visited a local hobby shop to meet some remote-control plane enthusiasts to get their take on the issue. They denied that they were flying drones; they preferred to use the word “quadcopters.” They recognize the stigma that the word “drone” has, and they would rather have nothing to do with it. After all, they’re just using their UAVs for fun, not killing. And yet, the good people at WMAC would probably disagree

As drones begin to appear in more spheres of public and private life, the media will need to find a clear and accurate vocabulary. Despite the thousands of drone-related articles, this vocabulary does not yet exist.

During the WAMC discussion,Chartok framed the drone as another classic case of the tension between freedom and security. “It’s going to be your safety versus your right to smooch with someone other than your spouse, and they’re going to take the safety every time,” he said. But no one said the drone use was at all related to the stuff of rom-coms. It’s a risky presumption by a journalist to say that the FBI has been spying on romantic trysts specifically. But then again, it’s not as if he used many specifics to start with.

(Photo Credit: The Daily Show)

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  1. Pingback: Roundup: Nassar al-Awlaki, X-47B, Drone Bounty Hunters

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