The ethics of direction in video

Videographers flocked to catch a glimpse of a running story
Videographers flocked to catch a glimpse of a running story – picture from

Tracy Boyer has an interesting post about the ethics of staging and directing contributors when shooting video. She sets out her stall in the intro

Allowing videographers to stage scenes, situations and/or actions is NOT journalism. We are here to document what we see, not recreate what we missed. If you missed the poignant kiss, that is your fault. How is it that journalism ethics can vary so greatly from print to broadcast?

I agree. It isn’t journalism. But I would go one step further. It has nothing to do with journalism. It has everything to do with the form, but nothing to do with journalism.

Or it could be about  that tired old argument trying to define the difference in the way ‘ethical’ videographers work compared to the “TV personality and videographer” who “bombard the scene and tell the subject what they want them to say”.  But we got past that TV is bad thing a while back didn’t we?

The journalism is in telling the story not the skill of being around long enough for the story to drift past your lens.

The ‘no retakes’ ethical position must also, logically,  require that you would never edit, that you never use lights and you never ask any questions. You may as well set up a hide and stalk your contributors like a wildlife documentary maker.

Every time a shot is framed or a cut made their is an editorial hand at play. In any time based media you cannot claim the purity of the scene when you play with the relationship of the scenes with each other over time.  When you cut out camera movements or slip wildtrack over an edit, in my view,  you have broken the same ethical code. Shoot a cut-away and edit that in… you get the idea.

What we have always focused on is the meaning and in that sense there is no difference here between print and online. We play with copy, editing quotes or using reported speech to tell the story. Asking someone to walk through a door again because we missed the shot is no different.

Of course we  use lights, we pick lenses, we edit to tell the story. We ask questions and guide. That’s what the form requires.

That we always present a fair, accurate and balanced view of the story is what journalism demands.

UPDATE: Angela Grant has responded to my view

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8 Replies to “The ethics of direction in video”

  1. Interesting post.
    “We play with copy, editing quotes or using reported speech to tell” the story. Asking someone to walk through a door again because we missed the shot is no different.” You are right, it’s what they call ‘framing’ in media studies (and in various criminal circles, too). And yet, and yet, the visual power of video to suspend belief means we enter into a contract that demands a greater approximation to reality. Editing to make picture fit, is quite different to making up pictures. In the same way, trimming a quote in print, however distorting, is different to making one up.

  2. Thanks Charlie

    “and in various criminal circles, too” LOL. I can see the newsroom scene now – I’m off to fit-up an MP for the 10pm news.

    I agree. The key thing is “a greater approximation to reality”. The key thing is that the journalistic values are paramount. Directing a shot, in my view, doesn’t necessarily compromise that

    I think there is is an important distinction to be made between directing the action and making stuff-up. If you ask a person to repeat an action that’s not making it up. Getting someone to stunt up an action is and that, as with making up a quote, is not on.

    The issue that Tracey raised was about directing the shot in particular not making-up shots. (although I think she would say that there is no distinction) True, there is a fine line between direction, illustration and deception but I don’t think it’s an ‘ethical’ issue.

    I’ve said before that to frame it in that way is an internal debate – one of a defining purpose rather than any absolute truth. This struck me as an effort to set her practice apart from the poor practice of the news crews she saw. That’s not ethics it’s working practice. Undesirable it may be but not unethical.

    The more accurate comparison in her terms would perhaps have been between the journalist and ethnographic documentary maker. All that participant observer and action research bobbins 🙂

  3. Interesting take on my post, Andy. I am glad to see others flesh out my thoughts and expand on them to discuss overall ethical dilemmas in our field. I was solely concentrating on the unethical practice of reenacting and/or directing scenes, but making up scenes is another troubling and unnerving practice.

    I would argue though that there is a difference between the two in that making up a scene is plagiarism and can (and should) be punished. Although I believe reenactments to be unethical AND an “undesirable working practice”, it pales in comparison.

    But, all can agree that the saving grace in the field of journalism is to maintain trust with our viewers. No matter if you believe these practices are unethical, unmoral or just bad work habits, it will slowly but surely break this trust …

  4. This is a lazy, “slippery slope” argument. There is something fundamentally different about having subjects create or recreate what you think happened.

    I agree that producing videos requires an endless series of judgments, but that doesn’t mean you have to descend into directing the action.

    Just as reporters must work with the quotes they bring back in their notepads, video journalists must work with what is front of them.

  5. Ryan

    “There is something fundamentally different about having subjects create or recreate what you think happened. ”

    and….different than….

    It isn’t a lazy argument. To call it such is lazy because it implies a whole raft of assumptions about the nature of the information gathering process.

    It’s more lazy to write off one part of a process as unethical and imply a more robust ethical standard for another without considering that large chunks of both of those processes are exactly the same.

    Take your point about working with whats in front of a reporter when they get back to the office.

    Let’s assume for a moment that the footage was gained in some ethically pure way – a judgment call on your own practice, but I’ll allow you the power to simply imbibe truthful footage by some form of technical osmosis at this point – what about when you get back to the office?

    You make a choice about what to leave in and what to take out. You mask edits in the shots with (some of that truthful b-roll you shot). How is that any more honest – you didn’t have two cameras. You didn’t catch b-roll at the same time and you didn’t have the contributor in the room to say “yes, that’s what I meant”

    I have yet to see a news website running completely unedited footage which runs as long as it needs to for the viewer to ‘get’ the story on their own. Everything we produce is a constructed reality and my point, my only point, was that to make a value judgment on the basis of ethics was wrong given that position. Not because the practice itself is wrong (or right) but because it wasn’t an appropriate measure to judge by.

    By your own measure, your alleged ‘better’ way of doing it is no less open to an accusation of being unethical.

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