Editor’s Note: This is part of a series on WITNESS’s Ethical Guidelines for Using Eyewitness Videos in Human Rights Documentation and Advocacy. Check back each Wednesday through December 2015 for a new post on ethics and eyewitness video, or click here for previous entries.

Each Wednesday on our blog, we’re exploring the ethics of using eyewitness footage in human rights reporting and advocacy. Up until now, the series has addressed ethical considerations relating to individuals filmed in eyewitness footage. In this post, we’re shifting to the ethical considerations relating to the two other primary stakeholders of videos: the creators and the audience.

Curating eyewitness video gives new context to someone else’s content. How can you not just share but contextualize the footage by providing information about the creators to your audience? (You can read the entire “Ethical Guidelines for Using Eyewitness Footage in Human Rights Reporting and Advocacy,” which this post draws from, at this link.)

Range of Filmers, Distributors, and Motivations behind Eyewitness Videos

Many filmers document human rights issues intentionally as professionals, citizen journalists, or activists who share the footage on their personal or institutional channels and social media accounts. In other cases, footage is shared anonymously due to the particular dangers eyewitnesses face. In the case of perpetrator footage, videos of abuse are often uploaded to the group’s communication channels; other times video is leaked by a whistleblower who takes steps to remain anonymous.

Regardless of whether the filmer’s identity is public, or the source is at risk, has requested anonymity, or is unknown, sharing relevant information about the source with your audience is important.

Why? There are three main reasons:

  1. Ethical responsibility to content creators: Whether footage is taken by a “citizen journalist” or by a professional reporter, photojournalist, or news organization, content creators often expect to be credited for their work. And depending on the legal jurisdiction, they may have a legal right to control its use and distribution. Also, while many individuals share their personal photos and videos publically on YouTube or social media, they do not necessarily expect or desire a larger audience that would result from their footage being distributed more widely. The Eyewitness Media Hub, which studies the use of eyewitness media by news outlets, has documented several cases in which citizen journalists have expressed frustration that their footage was used in the news without permission or attribution.
  2. Transparency: Eyewitness video, by definition, is created by people outside of your organization. They may not be concerned with objectivity or truth, and may have political agendas or biases. Your audience deserves to know whose perspective is framing this particular version of events, as that context can be critical to understanding what is—and isn’t—documented, and why. Think of the footage as a quote a source gives to a reporter. The reporter either names the source or, if there are valid reasons to maintain the source’s anonymity, explains those reasons and describes the source’s perspective and why the reporter considers that source credible.
  3. Chain of Custody: Chain of custody refers to the chronological succession of the video. Documenting the chain of custody of the footage you use will help human rights investigators, filmmakers, historians, or others who may be interested in that footage track down the original video. If the footage turns out to be valuable for a criminal investigation, for example, the ability to trace the chain of custody back to the original video may be critical in demonstrating that the footage is authentic.

How to Credit

There are several ways to provide attribution to the creator of a video. Which you choose depends on what medium you are working in, how much you know about the video and if you are able to seek permission from the filmer, and whether you intend to share the entire video, portions of it, or simply report on the information in the video without sharing the footage itself. It also depends on whether there are potential risks involved in revealing the source’s identity–a topic we will delve into in more detail next week. Here are some options:

  • Embed or link to the online video uploaded by the original source. For example, the YouTube channel, Syrian4all World provided English descriptions and subtitles to citizen videos of the Syrian War. In the description of each video on the channel, viewers are provided with a link to the original YouTube video. Be aware that the link could become invalid at a later date or the video could be removed or its privacy settings changed. 
  • State the name of the filmer or organization, as well as context about who they are (e.g., a political group critical of the ruling party, an independent journalist who contributes to the local paper, a local resident who was at the scene). Describing the video’s source as simply “the internet” or “YouTube” is neither ethical nor informative attribution. Bear in mind that sharing video with a larger audience–even if that video is already public–could put the filmer at risk. See the full guidelines for more on assessing and minimizing risks to eyewitnesses. 
  • If you are unable to determine particular information about the source, or have decided for security or privacy reasons to maintain the source’s anonymity, describe for your audience how the video was found, why you believe it to be authentic, and any relevant unanswered questions you may have about the source. For example, The New York Times project, Watching Syria’s War, curated online videos of the war in Syria, providing context on the content of the video as well as the source of the footage. For example, in an entry for a video described as showing protesters running from shots fired by Islamic State fighters, the following disclaimer is provided to viewers: “We do not know the identities of the people shown in this video, nor do we know the identity or political beliefs of the cameraman. We cannot see the gunmen who are firing the shots heard in this video, so we cannot verify claims that they are members of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria.”

If you’re looking for more tips on providing attribution to the original source of footage, we recommend these additional resources:

For further guidance, see WITNESS’s Ethical Guidelines for Using Eyewitness Videos in Human Rights Reporting and Advocacy. Click here to see more from WITNESS blog series on ethics and eyewitness videos, and share your own methods and challenges in using eyewitness video by reaching out on Twitter or sending an email to feedback [at] witness [dot] org.

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