The role of the media in the public perception of Unmanned Aerial Vehicles

Dale Richards, Alex Stedmon, Andrew Parkes, Bill Kaliardos

Research output: Contribution to conferencePaper


At present Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) are allowed to operate in the national airspace system (NAS) under limited regulatory conditions, with special dispensations for such things like disaster relief, law enforcement, etc (FAA, 2013). However, with a projected increase in UAV sales to treble in size over the next ten years (Teal Group Corporation, 2015), it is critical that we examine the manner in which the media can affect the public attitude (and acceptance) of such systems and operations. To some extent we are all aware of stories appearing in the media that relate to the operation of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs). To a greater or lesser extent these stories can often be viewed as being weighted towards more positive or negative slants, either in terms of the nature of the incident on which they are reporting or the language they use in conveying the article. The continuing dialogue surrounding the integration, regulation and use of UAVs. These topics range from the high-level ethical critiques of philosophers (Sparrow, 2012; Guoira, 2013) to the more practical agenda of those seeking to develop opportunities within the rapidly emerging UAV industry (Quan, 2017; Austin, 2010). However, a wider discussion is ultimately required that will help in not only shaping the future of UAV operations, but the overall acceptance of such technology in our NAS. Recent research has suggested that the attitudes held by the NAS stakeholder community - an important demographic to consider - varied across manned aviation pilots, Air Traffic Controllers and unmanned aviation pilots (Richards & Edgell, 2017). Some studies have found contrasting differences in attitude to UAVs when also comparing attitudes held by law enforcement agencies in comparison to the general public (see Saulnier & Thompson, 2016), reinforcing the disparity of attitudes held by those who are more likely to use UAVs as opposed to the general public. An attitude is often defined as "a relatively enduring organization of beliefs, feelings, and behavioral tendencies towards socially significant objects, groups, events or symbols" (Hogg & Vaughan, 2005). These are often perceived as beliefs along a dimension ranging from positive to negative (Fabrigar, MacDonald, & Wegener, 2005; Petty, Wegener, & Fabrigar, 1997). This description suggests that information relating towards an attitude may be stable over a long period of time as well as being stored in, and retrieved from, memory (Albarracín et al., 2008). However, attitudes may also be viewed as ‘temporary constructions that an individual generates at the time an evaluative judgment is needed’ (Bohner, Erb, & Siebler, 2008); thus explaining why some attitudes vary over time. This is more pertinent when we consider an individual being exposed to information about a topic that does not already attach itself readily to an existing attitude held by the individual. Therefore individuals who may not hold a particularly strong belief (or attitude) on a particular subject, could be susceptible to forming convictions based on new information that is presented to them. Unlike other stakeholder groups, the public are currently quite heavily reliant on the media for information about UAVs. Although the public are increasingly interested in hobbyist uses of UAVs (CAA, 2016), and some schools are using UAVs for educational purposes (Hall, 2016; Cansdale, 2016), direct experience is still relatively uncommon. Consequentially, media sources are likely to play a significant role in public perception and attitudes toward the technology. Past studies have shown that stories presented in the media may have a direct influence on how partisan audiences form attitudes towards the message being conveyed (Dalton, Beck & Huckfeldt, 1998; Barker & Lawrence, 2006). If we examine the manner in which opinions and attitudes may be formed, then it has been suggested that a degree of polarization occurs that will either move the reader's attitude in one direction or the other (Kunda, 1990). Frustratingly, the nature of how individuals can be swayed in pre-defined attitude directions based on accurate information or preferred conclusions remains an interesting but elusive construct (Taber & Lodge, 2006). However, what is evident is that the manner in which stories are presented in the media may be seen as having some sort of influence on the population's attitude. Depending on how these stories are 'framed' have been found to be present in how media outlets choose to report an event or incident (Brinson & Stohl, 2010). Brinson & Stohl (2012) found that when examining media stories surrounding terrorism and international crises, the manner in which media articles were framed had a direct effect on not only how the public perceives and reacts to the event, but also the relationship this attitude formation has on judgement. Clearly the exposure of the general public to UAVs is predominantly through the media and thus the manner in which such technologies (and its uses) are conveyed can significantly impact public opinion and could thus impact Government policy and egulations. In the present study we examine a number of online media stories generated from both the United Kingdom British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) and the United States Cable News Network (CNN). A specialist industry publication was also examined over the same period (Shephard UV). Titles from news articles, spanning over the past two years (2015-2017), were collected and assessed as possessing either a positive/neutral/negative position pertaining to the use of UAVs. Titles of the news articles were presented to participants who were asked to rate each of the article titles. The results of this analysis will be discussed and presented in relation to the potential impact on public opinion, with also the view of better understanding how the UAV industry can foster public trust. As public acceptance of technologies affects their strategic development, application and commercialization (Gupta et al., 2011), individual influencing factors are worthy of focused attention, with a view to a more thorough understanding of the social context.
Original languageEnglish
Number of pages10
Publication statusAccepted/In press - Jun 2018
EventAIAA Aviation and Aeronautics Forum and Exposition - Hyatt Regency Atlanta, Atlanta, United States
Duration: 25 Jun 201829 Jun 2018


ConferenceAIAA Aviation and Aeronautics Forum and Exposition
Abbreviated titleAIAA AVIATION 2018
CountryUnited States
Internet address

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    Richards, D., Stedmon, A., Parkes, A., & Kaliardos, B. (Accepted/In press). The role of the media in the public perception of Unmanned Aerial Vehicles. Paper presented at AIAA Aviation and Aeronautics Forum and Exposition, Atlanta, United States.