Broadcast journalism ethics need to change

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I have experienced it firsthand, and now I am reading about it. 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?

Now, I know print journalists have their ethical dilemmas, too. Photographers digitally manipulate photos, writers plagiarize stories, and graphic artists use coyprighted images. Maybe why I am so flustered with the ethics of videography is because I consider myself a video journalist (along with a multimedia producer, programmer and blogger).

For my social networking class, I read an article by The New Yorker discussing the infamous “MySpace suicide hoax.” The author depicts the scene of journalists as they interview the victim’s parents:

“Before the taping, Ron gave Tina a bereft, searching glance. The cameraman was hoping to capture it. ‘Could you look at your wife again?’ he said. Then he asked Tina, ‘Could you look at your husband?’”

This cameraman (working for Good Morning America) was no doubt trying to create a moving, emotional piece. But he missed the money shot. So instead of focusing on paying better attention to catch those moments in the future, he asked them to recreate it.

The very same situation has happened to me while I was at The Roanoke Times. I would be covering a story, along with local broadcast personnel. During one instance, I was there for an hour before they arrived, documenting the scene as a bystander would see it. Before long, the TV personality and videographer bombard the scene and tell the subject what they want them to say, many times asking that they repeat it several times so they can get multiple angles. After five B-roll shots, three sound bytes and a stand-up, they are out of there.

This approach to storytelling is wrong on so many levels.

First, they are telling the story the way they want it to be told, not necessarily how it would (and should) naturally be told. Second, the subjects are not dumb. If they see that this is how they are asked to present their story for the evening news, they will start the question the validity of future stories. Third, it’s just plain rude!

After the broadcast journalists left, I spent an hour interviewing my subjects. If they didn’t say something I needed them to say, I didn’t ask the right question. My Poynter fellowship drilled this into my head, and I am so thankful to carry this perspective into my career.

It is so frustrating when I do the ethical, more time-consuming process while others do the quick-and-dirty routine. It infuriates me to see a select few with no ethical practice give journalists as a whole a bad name.

What will it take for all journalists to treat their subjects with respect instead of just “doing the job to get it done”?

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  • Peg Achterman

    I am in total agreement that missing the money shot is no excuse to set things up, BUT…that said….you were able to stay for an hour to interview the subject. The TV-types had to get out of there and on to the next thing because their turn-around time is getting tighter and tighter. Having an hour on an interview is very very rare in local TV anymore. Again – not an excuse, but some of the blame lies in the run & gun attitude of producers, news directors and assignment editors.

  • Tracy Boyer

    Great input, Peg. Directors and editors play a major role in creating these tight deadlines that make it impossible for producers to spend time with their subjects. Unfortunately for them, the more time producers spend with their subject, the more he/she will open up to them and the better the story will become. I guess it’s just a delicate balance!

  • Kathy Moore

    Very well said.
    I wear all three hats these days. In my current position I am a print photographer for a newspaper, video journalist for a broadcast station and multimedia journalist for our online site. My ethics don’t change when I switch modes. We are all visual journalists, and there should not be a difference in our ethics.

    I will admit I have missed shots in the past – who hasn’t? We are all human. But I walk away from the scene determined to pay closer attention at the next story.

    It sickens me to see a scene recreated, and makes my job even harder when I have to explain over and over again to subjects when they ask what I would like them to do because the crew who had been there before me had instructed them on all matters. Too often I have to explain to them why I would rather spend a little time with them to hear and see their true story.

    The viewer, reader, user doesn’t understand the difference in our ethics. To them we are all “media”, and even one bad apple hurts all of our credibility.

  • Adam Westbrook

    The technology changes, but the ethics (as well as all the original skills of journalism ,like asking the right questions and writing etc) remain the same.
    I’m a multimedia trained journo too, but I was lucky in my training had a real focus on these original skills.
    I hope that’s the case for all trainees, as the drive for technically skilled VJs continues

  • Tracy Boyer

    @Kathy: That is so disappointing to hear that your subjects ask what they should do, almost expecting to role-play for the camera. I wonder if the harm already done can ever undo itself …

    @Adam: That is a great point, Adam. Nowadays trainees might be so focused on learning the software and technology that they may overlook the importance of learning the “basic” journalism skills. This is a big responsibility for J-Schools and in-house training for news organizations. I’d be interested to hear how these training sessions balance teaching technology and ethics …

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  • Benjamin

    ‘What will it take for all journalists to treat their subjects with respect instead of just “doing the job to get it done”?’

    It takes for journalists to understand that if you put people first, you will get a better story, then if you put the story first.

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