WITNESS releases guidelines for ethically using eyewitness video footage

by Sam Berkhead
Oct 30, 2018 in Specialized Topics

As citizens’ ability to capture live video and share it online has spread around the world, so has news outlets’ proliferation of this footage, using it to augment their coverage of breaking events.

From Iran’s 2009 Green Revolution to the current war in Syria and beyond, it’s common practice for journalists to source video footage from the individuals who actually witnessed an event.

This video footage brings an urgency and immediacy that traditional reporting often can’t. In some cases, it’s the only available evidence that an event actually took place. 

However, user-generated content doesn’t abide by traditional newsroom rules and protocols. If used improperly, eyewitness footage can violate the subject’s privacy or even put him or her in danger. Verifying this content and ensuring it’s released under the right context can also pose challenges.

“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,” said Madeleine Bair, program manager at WITNESS, an international organization that provides training and support to people using video in human rights advocacy.

To overcome these hurdles, WITNESS recently released its Ethical Guidelines for Using Eyewitness Videos in Human Rights Reporting and Advocacy. Bair spoke with IJNet to give an overview of the guide and discuss how it can be used by journalists worldwide:

Getting started

Bair said there are a number of ways for newcomers to jump into the guide. It’s split into seven sections — principles of ethical documentation, professional judgment, how to minimize harm while exposing abuse, perpetrator videos, credit and context, at-risk sources and graphic footage — making it easy to access information when it’s needed.

Each section includes examples of previous instances in which newsrooms have used eyewitness footage, which provides a practical, real-world angle to those hoping to start an ethical discussion within his or her own newsroom, Bair said.

“About half of the guide is descriptions of real cases from around the world in which eyewitness footage was used in news or human rights documentation, and a discussion of how to make an informed and ethical decision around using that footage,” she said. “These are great tools to start a discussion within an organization about how they would address similar scenarios.”

The guide also includes a checklist of questions to ask yourself before using eyewitness footage, as well as a list of things to consider while creating an ethical eyewitness code for your own newsroom.

Transcending contextual boundaries

When one considers eyewitness video within the global media landscape, things become even more complicated. Journalism ethics and contexts for eyewitness media vary widely from country to country. And because eyewitness video allows one to cover a part of the world he or she might not otherwise have access to, it’s common for journalists to use footage produced within an unfamiliar culture.

WITNESS’ guide was designed with this phenomena of collapsed context in mind, and can be used by journalists and media organizations in any country, Bair said.

“Notions of privacy, dignity and security vary across countries and cultures,” she said. “The guide was developed from WITNESS’ experience curating human rights videos from around the world, and working with citizen journalists and media activists who are on the other side of the camera in a diversity of regions. It also includes examples and expertise gathered from colleagues from different countries.”

What’s next

Currently, WITNESS is seeking feedback from journalists as to how the guide can be improved. Bair recommends submitting feedback by tweeting to @WITNESS_Lab or emailing feedback@witness.org. WITNESS also plans to translate the guide into several different languages in the future.

“Eyewitness footage has been adopted by reporters at different paces around the world, so it’s great to learn from and share best practices across borders,” Bair said.

Click here to read the full Ethical Guidelines for Using Eyewitness Videos in Human Rights Reporting and Advocacy. To read more about the guide, check out WITNESS' Ethical Wednesdays blog series.

Image CC-licensed by Flickr via Mr. TinDC.