Some Common Answers to Documentary and News Ethics Issues Leaves me Queasy
For every ethical question a documentary or news producer may face, there’s a standard answer. The problem is that the standard answers are often wanting. Heck, some of them are even unethical. Or so it seems to me. Here’s an example: When faced with a request, demand or opportunity to pay the subject of a news story or documentary, the usual response is, "We never pay for stories. That’s unethical." The key reason: paying a subject for access could influence the story. The subject might embellish or outright lie to guarantee or enhance compensation.
However, a secondary justification brings the first into question. The reasoning goes that the publicity provided has value and is enough compensation for the person’s time and story. It’s what subjects think; government officials, business leaders and rock stars agree to interviews when they have a bill, product or new CD to promote. Sometimes they’re subjects of stories they don’t want publicized (respectively, sex and money scandals and crappy songs); that is part of being a public figure. Regular folks may agree for their 15 seconds of fame (or may have become an involuntary public figure).
But in formal interviews or agreements to be recorded, why is it that everyone except the owner of the story can get paid? If compensation by publicity is OK, why isn’t compensation by cash? I’m as cheap as the next producer, but Hollywood pays for story rights. Are there some cases where news and docs should do the same?
The Los Angeles Times ethics code states, "In editing video, do not insert words or splice together statements made at different times so as to suggest that they were uttered at the same time. Excerpts of an interview or address generally should be presented in the order that they occurred. If an interview is presented in question-and-answer format, the questions must be presented as they were asked." Other media outlets and groups have similar standards.
I don’t want to mislead anyone, but when I conduct an interview the conversation often veers from my prepared questions. To avoid interrupting the flow, or to get a clearer answer to a question, we’ll cover topics nonlinearly and perhaps repeatedly. Then I sit down to edit the interview and work the content into a whole piece that probably involves other interviews and elements. This happens with both my text and my visual work, and it frequently requires reordering the recorded interview.
It’s easy to lie and distort with video. However, editing helps me create a clear, accurate and linear presentation that honestly portrays the subjects’ words and thoughts. Or so I hope. But I know several thoughtful folks who ascribe to the Los Angeles Times approach.
What, if any, limits should be placed on malleability? Should the guide be our own subjective interpretation of what is honest, accurate and fair? Or should we aspire to a more objective standard like that of the Los Angeles Times?
This July Patrick Schneider, a photographer at The Charlotte Observer, lost his job for manipulating the colors in a news photo. In an apology to readers, Observer editor Rick Thames wrote, "In the original photo, the sky in the photo was brownish-gray. Enhanced with photo-editing software, the sky became a deep red and the sun took on a more distinct halo." That’s a no-no for news.
Then Thames’ note continues. "Schneider said he did not intend to mislead readers, only to restore the actual color of the sky. He said the color was lost when he underexposed the photo to offset the glare of the sun." The Observer‘s photo policy, like that of many news organizations, says, "No colors will be altered from the original scene photographed." Goodbye Patrick.
Any time we record an image, it’s changed in one way or another- depth of field, color, distance and dynamic range, for starters. Pixels do not map directly to rods and cones. Tape and film don’t hold reality. We use different focal lengths, filters, shutter angles, irises and media to try to faithfully capture images and minimize changes. But sometimes we don’t quite get what we see.
In Schneider’s and several similar cases, the problem didn’t arise from changing the image. Rather, the ethical problem is that it wasn’t changed in camera; it was changed in post. Glass ND filter and shallow depth of field? No problem. Photoshop ND filter and Gaussian blur? Get out. In these days of digital images, is it OK to change ones and zeros in the field, but not in the office?
What Do You Think?
These issues are not of ultimate concern, but they bug me. During the month of November, I’ll be part of a discussion of various ethical issues at the Studio Daily forums here. What do you think?
Write Jim at firstname.lastname@example.org