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How to teach the ethics of using eyewitness video

When journalism students visit our offices at WITNESS to learn about video and human rights advocacy, the most common questions we hear are on the ethics of using eyewitness footage: How do you verify a video you find online? How do you know if a video is “verified” and if you can use it in your story? When and how would you use videos made by terrorist groups in a report?

As a human rights organization dedicated to using video as a tool for advocacy, these are questions we and our partners wrestle with every day. Increasingly, video documenting human rights abuse is filmed not by professionals but by average bystanders who have never been trained on issues like informed consent or by organizations aiming to spark fear or groups attempting to spread misinformation.

When such videos surface as part of a news story or a human rights investigation, what is a journalist or advocate to do with them? How do we apply the traditional codes of ethics when using footage we ourselves did not produce (often described as “user-generated content,” “UGC” or “citizen video”)?

It’s not surprising these questions are what young professionals want to talk about. Eyewitness videos are not only a central part of news reporting today, but a common element in social media channels. Addressing the ethics of using eyewitness footage provides students with a lesson that is immediately relevant to their own practices as consumers, creators and curators of information.

Yet, guidance on the ethics of using eyewitness footage hasn’t caught up with its importance as a reporting tool. WITNESS’s Ethical Guidelines for using Eyewitness Videos in Human Rights Reporting and Advocacy was created to begin to fill that gap.

Considering the stakeholders of eyewitness footage

WITNESS’ guidelines were written to help reporters, producers and advocates think through who could be affected by sharing eyewitness footage, and how to minimize potential harm to those people. After all, ethical mishaps are often the result of a lack of information. In the case of eyewitness footage, many reporters or producers simply don’t know what questions to ask about the footage and haven’t had a chance to consider the potential consequences of sharing it with a wider audience.

The guide is organized in three sections depending on the stakeholders of the footage. When teaching the ethics of using eyewitness footage, this is a good place to start. For any video, the central questions you’ll want to think through are:

  • Who are the stakeholders?
  • How could they be potentially harmed by the footage?
  • How could you as a journalist minimize potential harm?

You might be asking, why “stakeholders”? Why not just “filmers”? Or “subjects”?

When using eyewitness footage, there are a number of different people who could be affected by its distribution. First of all, there are those on camera. You don’t necessarily know if they consented to being filmed or even knew that they were on camera. Finding themselves on the evening news could change their lives forever. Depending on the nature of the footage, it could put them at risk of humiliation, harassment or worse.

Other stakeholders include those who filmed the footage and those who shared it. (Often this is the same person, but it could be different people with distinct objectives). Did they realize they were sharing it publicly? Could the footage put them at risk due to the nature of the footage? Are they aware of the consequences of attaching their identity to the footage, and did they take steps to protect their identity (such as sharing it on a new YouTube account without their name on it)?

If someone uploaded a video to their Facebook page, they may only expect their circle of friends to see it. We’ve seen several headline news cases involving eyewitness footage in which the filmer later expressed regret for associating their name with the footage (such as the bystander who filmed the chokehold death of Eric Garner in Staten Island). The safety of those who provide newsworthy footage is critical for journalists to consider.

Finally, stakeholders include the audience. What are the potential consequences of sharing footage that may turn out to have been disseminated as part of a misinformation campaign or a hate group? What sort of footage would warrant a warning to viewers about its graphic nature? How can a journalist share footage responsibly when it has not been independently verified?

How to teach the ethics of eyewitness footage

Our ethical guidelines don’t provide answers to these scenarios, but rather sets of questions to help reporters identify and address ethical challenges that can easily fall through the cracks.

In your classroom, you can find an example from the week’s news, from your community or from a class project, and use these checklists as a starting point for a discussion on the ethics of reporting with eyewitness footage.




If you are searching for examples for discussion, you can find several from around the world in WITNESS’ Ethical Guidelines. The Eyewitness Media Hub’s Medium channel is another great source of case studies illustrating how eyewitness footage used in the media inadvertently affected the people behind the footage.

More Resources

For much more on the ethics of using eyewitness footage in reporting, check out our blog series tackling a different aspect of the topic each week. The Eyewitness Media Hub, First Draft News and the ONA’s Build Your Own Ethics Code are other fantastic resources for guidance, tools and case studies on using eyewitness videos in reporting.

How do you discuss the ethics of using eyewitness video to journalism students, and what has been particularly challenging or successful? What resources would you recommend? We look forward to hearing from your experience in the comments below.

Madeleine Bair leads the WITNESS Media Lab at WITNESS where she examines how eyewitness video can be used safely, ethically, and effectively for human rights reporting and advocacy. Follow her on Twitter @madbair and follow WITNESS at @WITNESSorg. WITNESS Program Coordinator Sarah Kerr also contributed to this post.

This post originally published at MediaShift. Reposted here with permission.

How Gannett used engaged ethics to help kids in crisis

I still remember the feeling I had when I read the first lines of the story.

“The mics are off and the lenses capped,” reporter Rory Linnane wrote. “We’re wrapping up the interview, getting ready to shake hands and head out, when Angela Wesener grabs a photo album off the shelf and perches beside me on an ottoman in her family’s living room.

“We’ve both been crying.”

I immediately felt I was getting something different from the investigative and daily reporting I was used to from Linnane, a stellar young reporter I first met as a student in my class in 2010.

And indeed I was. I had landed on a story in “Rory’s Diary,” a gripping and novel element of a months-long series by USA Today Network-Wisconsin, delving into the state’s youth mental health crisis. In the diary, Linnane opens a window for readers into the reporting and the people behind the stories. She talks about her emotions, how her sources are affecting her and what the state’s elevated teen suicide rate costs us.

And she says that every time she does this, she feels uncomfortable — she was talking about herself, not something reporters often do.

Despite that discomfort, the Kids in Crisis series marks an interesting turn for USA Today Network-Wisconsin and maybe for journalism ethics overall. In many of their choices, the reporters and editors on the series embraced engaged ethics — drawing communities in closer rather than keeping them at arm’s length. Shunning a traditional — and often lifeless — view of journalistic objectivity, the team chose openness, transparency and a certain form of advocacy. Their sources and audiences seem glad they did.

A Project Idea from an Engaged Approach

USA Today Network-Wisconsin, formerly known as Gannett Wisconsin Media, includes daily publications in 10 cities, ranging in size from Wisconsin Rapids at 18,000 people to Green Bay at 105,000, plus smaller weeklies. The network employees 135 journalists in the daily newsrooms, plus another 15 at weekly publications. In the model USA Today Network is using, the individual news organizations cover community issues and activities locally. But they also cooperate across the organization to do bigger projects with statewide implications.

When Pam Henson, president of USA Today Network-Wisconsin, arrived in spring 2015, she spent 6 months traveling and meeting with people to learn what issues matter in the communities they cover. Jim Fitzhenry, the network’s state business development director, said Henson kept hearing over and over again about teen suicide. After some initial reporting showed the state’s teen suicide rate was about a third higher than the national average, Fitzhenry invited staffers across the network to pitch story ideas from their communities. As soon as he saw them, he was convinced consistent themes across all these areas meant they needed to do a major project, expanding their scope from suicide to youth mental health broadly.

The series launched in January with three main phases. The first chapter explored the state’s challenges and why its kids are dying at higher rates than in other states. The second covered possible solutions to the crisis, asking what ideas and initiatives could help turn the situation around. The final chapter called the state to action and involved town hall meetings in all 10 areas USA Today Network-Wisconsin covers, plus a Day of Action in the state capital.

The Kids in Crisis efforts included town hall meetings and a Day of Action in Madison, the state's capital. (Photo by Katy Culver)

The Kids in Crisis efforts included town hall meetings and a Day of Action in Madison, the state’s capital. (Photo by Katy Culver)

An open window on reporting

Throughout it all, Rory’s Diary was the common thread woven through all the elements. The at-times heartbreaking stories have a more human side to them because the audience sees behind the reporting. Take the diary entry on Angela Wesener.

“The loss of a child is unimaginable to those who haven’t experienced it,” Linnane writes. “But it’s human nature to try. Etched in my memory is an image of my friend’s mom draped over his casket, unmoving, desperate to hold onto her moment of goodbye to her lost son.”

The entry accompanies a more traditional piece about the the interplay of bullying and teen suicide and a video showing how losing a compassionate boy named Jonathan forever changed a family.

Linnane says transparency was critically important in getting her past her discomfort. She felt that while she was letting the audience know what she was thinking and feeling in her reporting, she wasn’t telling them what to think or how to feel.

“People understood exactly where I was coming from, and when they read the stories I reported on, they knew my perspective but could come to their own conclusions.”

Flawed ideas of objectivity

This engaged approach to ethics marks a departure from some traditional practices, a welcome change for the Wisconsin network’s vice president for news, Joel Christopher. He supports the role of journalists as neutral observes but argues that idea can get twisted and portray news organizations as separate and apart from the communities they serve.

“You’ve got to give people more than just this drumbeat of critical looks at the places that they live in or the organizations that they’re a part of,” Christopher says, emphasizing news media can facilitate needed change in society. “We want to make sure stakeholders are connected as effectively as possible to effect change.”

He says USA Today Network-Wisconsin purposely chose to challenge traditional notions of objectivity and distance in reporting and producing the series.

“I think sometimes there’s a mindset that objectivity completely removes a journalist from the world that he or she covers, and I think that’s mistaken thinking,” Christopher says. “The idea that journalists aren’t able to make objective decisions yet still retain some humanity? It’s a false choice, and I think that a lot of times we use that to actually avoid interaction with people because we didn’t want them to have a front-row seat to how we created the journalism.”

By embracing new forms of engagement, including the town hall meetings, the journalists on the series better represented the publics they serve, he argues.

“Audiences demand, rightfully so, that there’s some access to the people who are providing their news, and they want to see that there is an investment and a buy-in from the journalists.”

Andrew DeVigal, chair in journalism innovation and civic engagement in the University of Oregon’s School of Journalism and Communication, said embracing engagement recognizes that news organizations are no longer the powerful community gatekeepers they once were. He sees this shift in mindset as critical but often overlooked.

“In our radically connected world, I think community members being able to tell their own stories is already happening,” he says. “The more we distance from that fact — the more that we deny that that’s already happening — the less relevant we become as news organizations to the communities we’re supposed to serve. Our roles are changing within the public we are serving.”

Strong Response

The public noticed. In addition to the more than 1,000 people attending the town halls and Day of Action in person, livestream and archived video also saw strong performance. The series drew half-a-million page views in its initial months. But most importantly for Linnane, families affected by youth mental health issues consistently told her how much the series and her approach meant to them.

Archived video from USA TODAY NETWORK-Wisconsin's engagement efforts is available online. (Screenshot of Post-Crescent)

Archived video from USA Today Network-Wisconsin’s engagement efforts is available online. (Screenshot of Post-Crescent)

Michael Newton, a University of Wisconsin-Madison police officer and mental health advocate, says work like this goes a long way toward transforming the stigmas attached to mental health and helping the public see this for what it is: a public health issue.

“Somehow along the way, people have forgotten that this is an illness,” Newton says. “The fact that these journalists were engaging the community and trying to find solutions was inspiring and energizing.”

Fitzhenry sees potential for their approach to work with other issues of public importance, such as substance abuse or drunk driving. “We were able to bring together people who would never get into the same room. There were connections there that were very powerful,” he says. “People were hungry for those connections. It goes back to a basic sense of democracy. Having an exchange of ideas and knowledge is very powerful and people are interested.”

Kathleen Bartzen Culver (@kbculver) is an assistant professor in the School of Journalism & Mass Communication at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, teaching and researching at the intersection of ethics and digital media practices. Culver also serves as director of the Center for Journalism Ethics and education curator for MediaShift.

This post originally published at MediaShift. Reposted here with permission.