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Fake Drone News: What It Is, and How to Spot It

April 21, 2017

In the era of “fake news,” journalism is under more scrutiny than ever — and for good reason. Under the umbrella of fake news falls sensationalism, exaggeration, obfuscation, and the occasional flat-out lie. It’s rare that news stories called fake are 100 percent fabricated, but the term does indicate a type of reporting that is increasingly common.

This is a problem in drone journalism, too. Drone technologies — and the laws around them — change rapidly. For those learning about the world of drones or even get into the industry, unclear reporting only makes things harder. Who is the public to believe?

Take, for instance, the drone story du jour: a tale of a drone colliding with a private plane in Sedona, Arizona.

Unidentified flying objects

For those in the industry, reading yet another headline about a drone colliding with a plane is likely greeted with a heavy sigh and a healthy dose of skepticism. We’ve seen it before, and we’ll see it again: Any object that hits a plane is called a drone, until proven otherwise.

But this story of the Sedona drone is a different kind of story. As reported by Steve Krafft of Arizona’s Fox 10 News, a pilot reported that a drone had hit the underbelly of his plane. The FAA investigated the incident and found there was “no indication of an in-flight collision with any object,” according to Fox 10’s report.

So this was not only a case of a plastic bag or other foreign object colliding with a plane. This appears to be a story about … nothing at all. The story includes no photos, and describes the damage to the airplane only as “scratches.” No remnants of a drone were found.

In the story, Amanda Shankland, the general manager at the Sedona Airport, opts to support the pilot’s narrative. Despite the pilot not visually seeing the “drone” and the FAA reporting no indication of any contact, Shankland believes that a drone hit the plane.

Because of that insistence, the headline to this story is: “Sedona Airport warns drone pilots to stay away after collision with private plane.” Considering the lack of evidence to back it up, this is a harmful claim for the drone industry — and not a great look for journalism as a whole.

Image Credit: Flickr/Coconino National Forest

Don’t be fooled

Some people within the industry are able to tell when a news piece on drones is a little far-fetched. But there are a few telltale signs that can help those who know a little less about drones:

Photos – Stock photos and lack of image attribution should be a red flag for readers. If there’s no photographic evidence (and there often isn’t), the reporting needs to fill in the gaps. In terms of a drone collision, expect either photos or detailed description of the extent and type of damage. If neither are present, it’s good to be skeptical. And if there’s an image of a Predator or Reaper drone in a story about consumer quadcopters, just close the page.

Research – A thorough report should include quotes from industry specialists and information that has been verified by sources. Simple as that.

Context – News doesn’t exist in a vacuum. Stories should connect with other related stories: When the DOT audits the FAA, it’s good to know that the FAA recently released a report that it is struggling to keep up with the drone industry. This helps you as a reader, but it also shows that the reporter knows what’s going on around the events of a story.

Speculation – Keep an eye out for words like may, can, might, and could. There’s a place for light, speculative stories (notice we put that in the blog section), but they should not be misconstrued as hard news. On a related note, don’t buy into crowdfunded drones until they’re in customer’s hands. I don’t care how cool they look.

Of course, these are just a handful of factors. A piece can have photographic evidence, be well researched, and have context — and still end up being factually incorrect (or at least a little misguided).

The key takeaway here is to be informed. But journalists in the drone industry and beyond aren’t aiming to mislead you — there’s enough confusion out there already. If you see something that’s amiss, let the reporter know. Any journalist worth their salt will be damn glad you spoke up.

On a related note, for a story about a drone collision that has a few more details, check out this Canadian news item from today.

Featured Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons/PDTillman

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