June 23, 2016

The widespread usage of social media and apps like Periscope and Meerkat, (evolved from earlier video-sharing technologies such as Vine and of course YouTube) has turned ordinary citizens into often unwitting journalists. Long before news crews can get to the scene of a crime, traffic accident or hostage situation, anyone with a smartphone can capture graphic images of a potentially violent or personal situation, and broadcast video live to thousands, even millions. The ethical ramifications of using eyewitness footage are complicated for journalistic and legal purposes in terms of the responsibilities and rights of both the filmmaker and the subjects of the film.

Madeleine Bair is the program manager at WITNESS, an international organization that provides training and support to people using video in human rights advocacy. She told the International Journalists Network: “The emergence of eyewitness footage in reporting has happened largely without specialized training or best practices for the reporters and news outlets who find themselves using citizen footage.”

One of the issues in determining what is ethical when using eyewitness footage is a lack of information about what can be used.  In addition, the nature of social media encourages sharing without regard for the implications of privacy, or in some cases, safety and human rights.

Constitutional attorney Dan Barr told KPHO that in most cases involving public places, privacy laws don't protect individuals, which means if someone captures images of a person at the beach, or a concert, privacy law is not applicable. However, sharing images of a person or group of people who are situated at a private business, home or doctor's office could be problematic.

"If you take a photo in a private area where people have a reasonable expectation of privacy, you're going to run afoul of the privacy laws," Barr said in the report.

CNN reported that journalist Stephanie Wei had her PGA Tour credentials revoked after live-streaming her account of professional golfers practicing shots from a tour event on Periscope. "Everything just felt so natural, almost as if not live-streaming it would be missing an opportunity to do my job in a more informative way," she wrote in a blog post. "The response to the streams (from fans) was tremendous and overwhelmingly positive. I thought about the possibilities and how Periscope could be a major game-changer in enhancing media coverage of practice rounds leading up to the tournament days.”

Wei reported her understanding that the Tour had a responsibility to its financial partners in terms of paying for the television rights, however she felt it was time to “adjust to the current, ever-changing media landscape and how people—its customers—consume golf content.”

After noting that she was thrown off the PGA tour and lost her professional credentials, she would have to “live with the consequences” that would impact her “professionally and financially,” Wei added.

While money and sports broadcasting are one element in the mix in the larger ethical landscape of live footage, there are other factors affecting the issue as well. Even geography can play a part. In America, there is a different set of standards and expectations for what might be appropriate to broadcast online than overseas. So when an American is traveling, footage that is taken and broadcast might have human rights implications that are unknown to the person shooting the footage.

In terms of journalism and for documentarians and investigators, videos posted or linked online raise questions about how to apply ethical and safe human rights practices. Minimizing the potential for harm or violent repercussions to any community when filming, editing and posting footage should take paramount consideration. Journalism at a minimum has a responsibility to protect the identity of a victim of a crime so that a person’s privacy isn’t violated by social media. Video subjects, who often don’t even know they’re being filmed, shouldn’t be forced to explain events they otherwise would not have had to, potentially undergoing additional trauma at the cost of a sensational news story.

While technology makes it easy to link to a YouTube video in an online report, article, or documentary film, filmmakers have a responsibility to consider the potential implications of doing so for the individuals and social or community groups being filmed.

Eyewitness footage shouldn’t be used as the sole source of a media report. Eyewitness Media Hub co-founder and lead researcher Pete Brown told MediaShift, citing a Tow Center report on legal and ethical issues of eyewitness footage:“I don’t think news organizations should be reaching the conclusion that eyewitness media can somehow replace professional journalism,” Brown told MediaShift. “It’s an amazing and invaluable addition to the newsgathering process, but audiences still need journalists to unpack and make sense of eyewitness content and to provide vital context about the story.”

In order to help citizens and activists determine when and how to use eyewitness footage, the international human rights advocacy organization WITNESS released ethical guidelines on the issue.

Responsibility to Individuals Filmed

One overriding concept within the realm of ethics in usage of eyewitness footage is simply minimizing harm to the subject of the documentation. Gaining consent from the person or persons being filmed is the easiest way to avoid future ethical problems. If the subjects are aware they are being documented and for what purpose and audience, the creator of the film has met a certain level of ethical responsibility. Once again, the setting of the filming becomes important: If the setting is a public place versus a private home or office, there are far less likely to be problems later on with privacy issues.

Those shooting footage need to consider cultural differences. For example, when filming a protest or rally in the U.S., the identities of the protestors are not usually a secret, so if they’re seen on social media, there would  be no potential for additional retribution, where in other countries, protestors could be punished for their activism.

WITNESS guidelines recommend that filmmakers should consult with someone inside the relevant community being filmed in order to determine whether sharing the footage could potentially create any harm.

A film’s creator often weighs benefits to society of documenting a film’s subject because of a perceived advancement of the greater social good. However, the risk of sharing the eyewitness video to create harm to participants is a far greater consideration. Facial and voice blur tools are available on YouTube to hide the identities of individuals in a video if privacy or lack of consent is a potential issue. It is the filmmaker’s responsibility to ensure that identifying information (nametags, license plates, addresses) is not seen on the video.

Responsibility to the Filmer

One ethical issue of eyewitness video is protecting the identity of a filmmaker if that individual has chosen to remain anonymous. Sometimes this choice is made for safety reasons, so the footage is posted under another account or an anonymous account. Anyone using this footage then has a responsibility to respect this desire for anonymity.

Another important issue a filmer faces is the provenance of the footage. News organizations have stumbled before by reporting on footage that turned out to be counterfeit. Reporters should always embed or link to footage from its original source, stating the name or organization of the filmer. They should also describe as much information as possible about the circumstances under which the video was obtained and why its legitimacy is assumed. Copyright issues may come into play and are a separate legal determination.

Responsibility to the Audience

When presenting eyewitness videos to an audience, the content curator has a responsibility to provide a context for the footage, particularly if it is controversial or potentially offensive. Simply placing a piece of video or linking to it in the middle of a sentence without explaining why it is there wouldn’t make any sense.  Including background information and history of its placement within the report or social media channel is important. If the footage is graphic or violent, for example, there should be a clear warning preceding it.

Unfortunately, eyewitness videos can sometimes be made to further agendas of hate, fear, rumor and stereotypes. In the ethics guide, WITNESS advises taking steps to reevaluate that the video does not provide a platform for the advancement of hateful beliefs or false rumors.

Everyone has a smartphone and a social media account, so it’s easy to shoot a video and share it. If suddenly the world is going to be full of “citizen journalists” though, we’d all benefit from learning some of the basic tenets of responsible journalism and work to respect the rights and privacy of those being filmed.

Mary T. McCarthy is Senior Editor at Splice Today and the creator of Pajamas and Coffee. She has been a professional writer for over 20 years for newspapers, magazines, and the Internet. She teaches classes at The Writer’s Center in Bethesda, Maryland and guest-lectures at the University of Maryland’s Philip Merrill College of Journalism. She is the author of The Scarlet Letter Society series.