Ethics ethics ethics…

Viewfinder Blues got under my skin tonight. I graded all of my kiddies English papers and decided to relax by cruising through some of my favorite blogs. And now I’m crabby. Lenslinger posted an example of either staging or not staging an interview and then asked a few of those unanswerable questions…

The core of the argument is: What some cameramanthropologists consider harmless room rearranging, others call shameless ‘staging’ – a taboo practice among those committed to shooting the truth. But then again, what is truth? Is it a homeless shelter director swathed in perfect three point-lighting? Is it a stroke victim hobbling alongside some nodding reporter in a backyard rose garden? Is it a swim team coach hamming it up with a wireless microphone attached to the whistle around his neck? I ask these questions because it is easier than answering them.

Gee, thanks Lens. What this revolves around is a posting from A photog shot an interview with a lawyer and placed a couple of law books in the foreground to frame the shot. Is this staging? Is asking the subject to sit in a certain seat for better lighting/composing staging? The arguements circle around and end up biting themselves on the behind…you can argue either side.

But current ahd future VJs beware…this is one of the issues you need to think about and discuss with your peers. Beyond the breakers, most news tilts over into a semi-fantasy, semi-real world. You try to be honest, objective, maintain your standards…unless you shoot ONLY what is actually happening, you could be accused of staging. So think this through…decide what you can live with…and forge ahead, ready to defend your every shot.


11 thoughts on “Ethics ethics ethics…

  1. Any interview is a staged event anyway. It is unavoidable and the nature of the beast. I don’t see how trying to get a creative shot that might actually hold the viewers attention makes it unethical. Of course there are some VJ’s who go too far to set up a scene, but lighting and a few props are a lot less objectionable to me than staged b-roll of the coach “interacting” with a disabled player during practice. I guess to me the difference is between setting up a shot and setting up a scene.

  2. Hey… if you set it up: had the subjects re-do something, or re-arrange the scene or change the lighting, then you’ve changed reality. At that point it becomes production. Print photogs get some amazing images from manipulated flash… it’s not what the naked eye saw, yet it’s passed on as that. And the same thing happens with video. I’m not sure what the difference is between a scene and a shot (teachj comment). As a journalist, my job is to show reality. We are in an age of news where “file” video is regularly passed off as the events the anchors are reading about (someone forgot to reference it) and crime scene re-creations are the norm. It’s a dangerous path if not represented as such. When we go that route, then we need to let the public know we are doing it.

  3. Once had a newbie reporter ask if cutaways of the reporter listening weren’t staging – and technically, he’s correct (although he loved to see himself). Another time had a reporter (we were doing a story on allergies) ask a construction worker to sneeze again – and he didn’t get why I wouldn’t shoot it. My standards seem to be in alignment pretty much with yours…there are times when you can “set” things up. An interview is a setup. Asking a subject to do a walking interview is a setup. Riding along with cops and they pull someone over for an infraction is not a setup- they would have done this anyways. It’s just that there are so many grey areas you have to be thoughtful and careful. And that’s not to say I haven’t been pure myself in every situation…but, as all good VJs do, I try my best.

  4. I think teachj meant that a shot is an acceptable reality (setting up an interview) but a setting up a scene is more like the crime recreation or staging a shot. (Teach-clue me in if I’m wrong)

  5. I’d never ask someone to re-do some type of action. That is unethical.

    But I agree that an interview is different. My subject’s natural routine probably doesn’t include a camera shoved in his or her face, and a nosy reporter asking questions. So it’s already out of the person’s routine. I don’t care if there are some law books stacked up … Although I probably wouldn’t go to the trouble of doing all of that in my own work, since I’m only going to show that talking head for three seconds and then show b-roll. That’s what people really want to see anyways.

  6. A scene involves some amount of acting and belongs in the drama department. A shot is what a journalist captures on tape. While you may do some amount of creative staging with the set and props, it should still represent reality.

  7. What about the set-up feature story? I get assigned the alligator sanctuary story– someone finds out there’s one near Sacramento . We call them up and ask if they will show us around (right there is staging)… so the whole story is a staged tour of the farm. Since the whole thing is a set up to begin with, then asking the alligator man to feed his alligators for you should not be considered staging… or anything else you ask the alligator man to do. This can apply to all kinds of stories. What if you are at a press conference for seized narcotics and weapons. The cops are showing off the stash and you miss the bit where cop man holds up the AK-47. Several photogs ask if they can do that again… is that staging… it’s a press conference. Its purpose is for the press to get video. Ethics purist would say don’t ask for cop to repeat the gun thing. Others would say it’s okay. Cyndy, you mentioned in a earlier post that newsies would never do what Andy Dickinson showed us in his “How to Lie with video” post. Well it does happen. There is a lot of slanting news going on lately. It comes with the push to make news more entertaining. Television newsrooms are full of very green reporters and photographers who never studied journalism. I’ve seen nearly an entire newsrooms gutted and replaced with staff who never worked in news before. The end product looks it too– but it is entertaining. So, us old school types are in for a wild ride as the whole business is redefined. Having a copy of SPJ’s code of ethics is a good reference to have around… I used to have a copy of it taped to the ceiling of my news car (above the reporters head). You can get a free download at

  8. I agree feature stories are not exactly “news” and you have to draw a line between how you represent hard news items vs. a feature story.

    You also can’t entirely eliminate bias in your coverage either. Just the idea of picking what is important enough to cover and what isn’t is a form of bias. But you should try to keep your political and religious beliefs out of the newsroom if possible.

    Just as magazine stories are much different than newspaper articles, a feature story will be told with a lot more “set up” than a hard news item. But I do agree that there has been a lot of featurizing of hard news lately in all markets because it makes the news more entertaining. Blame your marketing department and the ad department.

    No newspaper or TV station is totally independent of market forces due to advertising pressure or ownership pressure.

    The first time I ever covered the local Rotary meeting for my hometown newspaper, the Managing Editor called me into his office and told me in hinted language to go easy on the Rotary – give them positive press in other words. As a young 20-year-old intern, who needed his approval for my summer grade, I did as I was told. And many other reporters do too. When your paycheck is on the line, you will write the story the way your editor wants it written.

    In TV, if the news director wants more drama, you will do it his/her way – or hit the highway.

    Is all staging wrong – no. Is some of it just to make it more entertaining – yes. Is some of it to slant the story – yes. Is that wrong – yes.

  9. Here is the Radio-Television News Directors Assoc. Code of Ethics

    “Professional electronic journalists should not:
    * Manipulate images or sounds in any way that is misleading.
    * Present images or sounds that are reenacted without informing the public.”

    Here is the short handbook, “Best Practices for Television Journalists” from the Freedom Forum

  10. Pingback: TEACH J: For Teachers of Journalism And Media Keepin’ It Real: Best Practices & Codes of Ethics «

  11. I do not see a distinction in ethics of feature stories versus those of hard news stories. In neither should you be manipulating images in a misleading way.

    To some degree the very exercise of television storytelling is a form of staging. The problem comes when telling the story means misrepresenting some aspect of it. Namely: Asking people to do things for the sake of the camera that they would never do. The shot of the reporter and the subject walking down the sidewalk together is staging. But it’s not a perversion of reality in a way that raises questions about the story’s — and the storyteller’s — credibility.

    Same with the framing of the lawyer interview. It raises a different question for me. What is the purpose of the interview? Is it to show off the photog’s creativity or is it so we can see and hear the subject speak for himself? I like thoughtful framing but I hate to see stories in which the shooter’s (or the reporter’s) attempts to dazzle us with his craftsmanship get in the way.

    I prefer to see interviews in which I can clearly see the person’s face. If the comment is important enough to hear from the person’s own lips, it’s important enough that I want to see him saying it. That’s not to say that I never cover soundbites but when I deem one important enough to appear on camera, I don’t want something in the foreground distracting viewers from paying attention.

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