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The Ethics of Curating Citizen Video

Posted on May 13, 2014 by Madeleine Bair

This is the first in a series about developing guidelines for the ethical use of citizen video in human rights reporting. For the second post, concerning the ethics of publishing a video of sexual assault, click here

For two years, WITNESS has curated citizen videos on the Human Rights Channel on YouTube, and before YouTube, on The Hub. We do that because it is no longer just trained human rights defenders who are using video to document abuse, but eyewitnesses, soldiers, detainees, humanitarian workers, perpetrators, and others—what some have termed the “Fifth Estate”—whose first-hand footage can provide valuable evidence of human rights abuses.

But the decision to share that footage is not always easy. In some cases, we are unable to verify with absolute certainty when or where a video was filmed. In others, footage exposes vulnerable people, who can be at risk if identified in a certain context. Still yet, we have seen perpetrator-filmed videos that document abuse while revealing the victims, who clearly were not asked for their consent to be on camera. Over the years, several videos have prompted internal and public debate over the ethics of distributing citizen video.

That’s why we applaud the efforts underway by two journalism associations to develop guidelines for ethical reporting in the 21st century, and are lending our voice to the discussion. Simultaneous initiatives by the Society of Professional Journalists to revise its Code of Ethics, and by the Online News Association to create a DIY Ethics Code, present an opportunity to consider how changes in media platforms, technology, and practices have brought about new challenges to consider when striving to make ethical reporting decisions.

While newsrooms and human rights organizations do not necessarily share the same objectives or subscribe to the same ethical standards, the role of the “Fifth Estate” has made an impact on both fields, and we share many of the emerging challenges in determining how to work with citizen reports in a safe, ethical, and effective manner.

Over the next few weeks, we will highlight on the WITNESS blog a few of the ethical conundrums that we have encountered in the course of our work curating human rights video. We hope that these cases can provide SPJ and ONA as well as individual newsrooms and reporters with scenarios to bear in mind when considering how a revised ethics code could address the use of citizen video in reporting.

We also aim to broaden the discussion underway in the journalism industry to other fields utilizing citizen footage, such as advocacy and crisis response work, where traditional professional standards often conflict with the desire to use citizen video effectively to expose abuse. Finally, the series will conclude with the publication of our own revised ethics code that guides our work curating citizen video on the Human Rights Channel.

For now, I’ll leave you with our own Guidelines for Violent or Objectionable Content, which outlines the kind of videos that cause our team to pause before distributing publicly, and invite your comments or questions on it below:

To ensure that WITNESS upholds the basic principles of human dignity, and to help minimize and prevent direct or indirect harm resulting from any footage, audio or imagery, careful consideration will be given on whether to feature content:

  • Posing a significant risk to someone’s life or personal safety;
  • Representing a direct written or verbal incitement to violence or hate;
  • Containing pornographic nudity or sexual imagery;
  • Where the subject’s capacity for decision making or ability to give consent may be compromised, such as children (under 18), detainees/prisoners, and people with mental disabilities;
  • Featuring graphic violent imagery;
  • That is discriminatory or intolerant on the grounds of ethnicity, race, gender, disability, national origin, sexual orientation or religion or is otherwise inappropriate;
  • Content that risks re-victimizing the subject of the human rights violation.

Image courtesy Ryan Kautz/WITNESS. A young man films using a mobile phone from a rooftop looking over Tahrir Square in Cairo. 

What Others Are Saying

  1. Madeleine May 17, 2014 at 4:28 pm

    Thanks for your comments, Ed. I agree with your sentiment that the value of citizen journalism lays in the diversity of its content, given the absence of filters and the accessibility of the medium. Anyone can produce their own reports and share it online, which is revolutionary for coverage of underserved communities by news media and many other fields, including human rights. (This is why WITNESS has advocated for the preservation of online human rights footage, even if it is graphic or offensive in nature.)

    To address your concern about “neutering” citizen journalism, to these ethical guidelines are not targeted at those creating it (it would be both unwise and impractical to try to hold such a volume and diversity of content creators to ethical standards), but rather, professionals who use citizen video in their work–and yes, act as filters–including journalists and human rights advocates.

  2. Ed Donegan May 14, 2014 at 10:49 am

    The First Amendment, far from providing an argument against application of the Sherman Act, here provides powerful reasons to the contrary. That Amendment rests on the assumption that the widest possible dissemination of information from diverse and antagonistic sources is essential to the welfare of the public, that a free press is a condition of a free society. Surely a command that the government itself shall not impede the free flow of ideas does not afford nongovernmental combinations a refuge if they impose restraints upon that constitutionally guaranteed freedom. Freedom to publish means freedom for all, and not for some. Freedom to publish is guaranteed by the Constitution, but freedom to combine to keep others from publishing is not. -
    Associated Press v. United States – 326 U.S. 1 (1945)

  3. Ed Donegan May 14, 2014 at 10:43 am

    I applaud this! One concern in implication. Though only guidelines, published guidlines can drive civil liability judgements later. I would be cautious about neutering Citizen Journalism too much. One of its valuable elements is that news IS less filtered. Adding some of the same politically theorized mantras of the mainstream median into Citizen Journalism constrains 5thEstate’s ability to evade the filtering of the “4th.” For instance, the MSM DOES have a “view” that certain race related topics are unethical to report, such as the amount of crime in the innercity or race related crimes where the purpetrating suspects are from a minotiry class, who’s public image is watched for to accomplish socioligal goals, ie , lowering intolerance towards inner city conditioins, etc.,

    Evading these filters on reporting are one of the values of the 5th Estate. Its editorial policies are “as diverse as human thought.” (Reno v.. ACLU.) To pressure the 5th Estate to the 4ths rather narrow editorial ethics spectrum hinders the full possible value of the 5Th Estate.

    Diversity of opinion and news sources are as vital to a well informed public as news itself (AP vs. I forget.) That said, I do believe the 4th performs a great service to the 5th when it lends expertise on pitfall and dangers of passing on information, and types of hazzards that can present.

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