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Speculations on Openings, Closings, and Thresholds in International Public Media

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Posted by Patricia Zimmermann at 9:48AM   |  34 comments

Blog cowritten by Sam Gregory, Program Director, WITNESS, and Patricia Zimmermann, professor of Cinema, Photography and Media Arts and codirector of the Finger Lakes Environmental Film Festval, Ithaca College

PART THREE: Towards Provisional Ethical Working Principles of Social Media and Human Rights

Overarching all these questions of ethical responsibility – to the person, to the story, to action - is the change in relationships between the one-on-one negotiation of consent, rights and usage between a documentarian and a subject, a largely binary relationship or series of relationships, on an ethics of an image grounded in a particular relationship to a focus on an ethics of networks, of material circulating, re-combining and being re-used in multiple relationships between people often far distant from the source originators (the filmer, the filmed).

Some provisional principles might include:

  • An image uploaded, bluetoothed or shared is an image that can circulate and move and be reshaped, and all ethical assumptions should be based on this.


  • Consent - emerging from established human rights practices and traditions of documentary ethics, and social science, and grounded in a recognition of real dangers on the ground - is central, but needs to be re-grounded in new communities of practice such as exist in spaces like YouTube


  • Respect for human dignity, emerging from established human rights practices and traditions of documentary ethics and grounded in a culture of empathy, is central.


  • Preservation of agency is a balancing act between the storyteller and the remixer, reliant on internalized and externalized context


  • Aggregation offers us an alternative to singular emblematic stories or paradigmatic stories that fits preconceived ideas, yet require new frameworks of aggregative ethics and questions about how to generate ‘responsibility to act’


  • Ethical engagements will be conditioned by the technological operators of online services, the creators of software and hardware – and their engagement is critical to this project.

We are now in a world of purposeful witnesses, of casual producers, documentary producers and advocacy producers, of governmental, corporate and non-governmental promoters of technology as panacea, of curators and aggregators, of citizen participants in projects of collective voice, and of re-mixers, re-purposeful witnesses and casual sharers of the spreadable and viral.

The question of ethical engagements between all of these sectors for human rights is the challenge we must all enter into, proposing both solutions and questions.



I agree with these rules. As a soon-to-be documentarian, these rules will be my 10 Commandments.

It can also go the other way. In film class, we recently studied Chinese New Wave cinema. The Chinese government had, until 2006, a tight control over what can be produced as film. This restriction is a violation of human rights (according to American standards) of the directors involved. If anything was against the Chinese government, it was banned.

Journalist need to hold a certain higher respect for people than most others have. It is a journalists job to remain objective and report only fact, according to Ayn Rand. A journalist must not commit libel.

Ethics in journalism is difficult to discuss; since media is spread at an infinite rate, censorship lies within the writer, photographer, and producer. Each demographic has an idea of what is and isn't acceptable material--it's invested within social mores.

However, the internet has created a free-for-all as far as published news goes, For instance, manipulation. A photo of the Iraq War could be lifted from the CNN page, photoshopped, then written about from the completely opposite siding (with different biases, different language, in all, different meaning). In turn, affecting an entirely new demographic than the original CNN article was targeted for. Is this infringement? -- That is journalistic ethics, for it can be both yes and no.

Now is a time of clashing civilizations, with media as the fuel. How can one know if the story given is the story in truth? International ethics will continue to clash in parallel form, unless, utopia falls upon the world.

Matthew, it is interesting that you bring up the case of photo manipulation. There was actually an incident a couple years ago in the New York Times similar to your example. The Times printed a photo which they thought was real but it turned out to be a fake (more information:

30 years ago, these kinds of things didn't happen. No one had those kinds of resources available. But today we live in a very different world. Seven year-olds know how to make websites, over 82 percent of Americans have cellphones (reported in a 2007 study), and 2.5 billion people own a computer worldwide.

Technology is extremely integrated in our culture. With everyone having access to technology, journalists have to be more careful where they get there facts. A lot of information (facts, pictures, or video) could be misleading and/or altered.

While technology has become a means of international awareness, it also constantly brings fault with the messages it distributes. Like others have said, as world issues and news becomes more accessible, it also becomes more vulnerable to misinterpretation. The emergence of blogs, Youtube, and other forms of social media has given way to not only more information, but biased information at that. While it is beneficial to receive the voices of the many and the different, the view points of other's hinders people's perceptions of cultures they are not completely informed of. It is important to become more aware of the situation as a whole.

Consent is essential, but as all that have stated before me, technology is a fast-passed, all access playing field. Is there anyway to truly monitor these manipulations or misinterpreted representations? In such a rushed society fueled by technology, are we jeopardizing the truth for time? Is there anyway to prevent this from escalating?

In this day and age, as highly viral and accessible forms of social media are becoming more and more prevalent, it is important that the individuals who manage the vehicles through which media is so largely distributed (i.e. youtube, news sites, blog spots) hold the creator of every piece of posted material strictly responsible for the information it provides. Although the rules, or responsibilities rather, of filmmakers posted here should be steadfast in the production of distributable media today, the fact is that they are not. Not all image-makers, writers, directors, and radio hosts follow such ethical procedures. This is quite unfortunate, but it is the reality of the world of social media today.
As modern adult viewers of this material, it is important to remain forever skeptical, and to search for the truth in all we read, hear, and watch. We must remember that not all we see in the newspaper or on television is reality. However, what is most tragic is that children growing up in this age of bias and irresponsible reporting may be more prone to accept what they see without question. This is extremely dangerous. It is frightening to think how simple indoctrination can be through the world of the web.

Going off of Shea, I agree that journalists need to be held to a higher standard and need to have clean facts that are exactly that, facts. This relates to film and how documentaries should be factual as well, however are often manipulated by the filmmakers. Journalists can twist facts and their words around just as filmmakers, however both need to be sure that they are clear of libel. I liked how Shea also connected it to The Chinese new wave and how the government controlled what was created and distributed. It is also on a smaller degree like the codes that were placed on Hollywood.

It seems to me that the provisional principles above are loosely based off of the code of ethics from the Society of Professional Journalists. Look for yourself here:

As an aspiring journalist, I find that ethics play a key role when approaching a story. However, with the the world of journalism rapidly moving forward, this role is sometimes forgotten. This is highly evident when it comes to the movement of citizen journalism; should citizen journalists be held to the same standards as "professional" journalists? What are the differences? Is the code of ethics the same? These are all critical questions to think about and certainly documentarians can relate.

Ethics in journalism are pointless without someone to govern them. That is why organizations like EngageMedia are important because they have rules and regulations to their postings. It is also a lot better because they have a specific focus to their mission, EngageMedia for example focuses on the Asia Pacific. It gives a place that people can trust, videos on YouTube are very loosely governed, basically only to the point of don’t steal anything. We need to support new organizations that will help give us somewhere to go that we trust and can listen to in order to learn about this world and hopefully work to change it.

In response to Shawn, part of being a journalist is respecting a code of ethics that is set out. As a journalist you are trusted by the public to get information that in some cases is vital to peoples livelihood.

Ethics are vastly important, for if a documentarian calls out an establishment whilst ignoring ethics, what makes them any better than the people they are attacking? With the proper consent of individuals any story can be ethically and effectively made, and be made well. In my opinion, a story's validity comes down to the ethical practices of a journalist, their ability to stay truthful to the facts, and stay at the heart of the story at hand.

The earliest feature length documentary, Nanook of the North (1922) by Robert Flaherty, was criticized for its authenticity. In fact a later film, Nanook Revisited (1988), went back and explained the errors in Flaherty's representation of the Inuk of Northern Canada. Flaherty did not follow the guidelines listed above, and instead put ethics aside to accommodate the impact of his film. Even the earliest of documentary filmmakers was inconsiderate of other people's intelligence and displayed them as primitivistic. Have we learned our lesson nearly a century later? In a world where technology has granted us so many freedoms, will people be willing to sacrifice popularity and fame in order to respect the dignity of their fellow man?

If a documentary cannot be made without dismissing ethics, it has no business being made. the ethics behind the way information is obtained as well as displayed is equally as important as the validity of information.

Recently on this blog site, I read an article about a documentarian who was hesitant to upload a fifteen-year old documentary onto the internet for fear of violating the consent, as well as respect for human dignity, of the documentary's subjects. Opening the film to the potential manipulation of online users generates concerns not known to the subjects when the documentary was created. These principles are essential ethical concerns that should be pondered by anyone, especially documentarians and other filmmakers, as soon as they even approach their films. With online technology so advanced, documentarians need to consider these principles and the potential for online manipulation of their documentaries. Is it worth exposing a film with the risk of online manipulation? How could online interference affect the premise of the documentary? Is there technology being created to protect one's online media? Anyone who posts a film online should seriously consider these questions as well as the ethical responsibility of being a public filmmaker.

Ultimately, I think ethics cannot be overlooked by documentarians and journalists. They have a responsibility to convey the truth, and should do so with principles intact.

I believe that a documentary, along with any social media, should be ethical in its treatment of its subject matter and its subjects. However, it is interesting because the idea of ethics are subjective. For example, several documentaries were made in World War II Germany about Hitler. The filmmakers behind those documentaries probably had very few ethical reservations about making their films. I would assume that many believed in Hitler's cause. However, to us today, the ethics of those films would be considered terrible. Another example can be found in the film The Birth of a Nation. While not a documentary, the film provides a supposed history of the American South and the Ku Klux Klan. Again, the DW Griffin, the filmmaker, had few ethical reservations about the film, for he believed in his message. However, today, many people can agree that the films message was extremely racist and biased. How do one's ethics determine the content of a documentary and how does one judge which ethics to follow?

Does there really have to be any ethics for a documentary at all? Could it be that as long as the director shows no bias and only presents the facts as what they are he/she is not doing anything wrong. If someone were to protest agains a documentary with no bias and only presented fact then the protester is simply against knowing the truth.

This is one of, if not the, most important issue a documentarian must take into account. As discussed in the October 25th Intro to A&A lecture, it is not the job of the documentary filmmaker to portray without bias, but rather to express an issue and persuade the viewer to take a side. I believe that a director of a non-fiction film uses rhetoric as opposed to objectivity, especially when portraying personal accounts, to maximize the persuasive effects. By putting the subjects on camera in a sympathetic light, the film appeals to the pathos of the audience, thereby lending the film some credibility.

I think that one of the most important things that viewers out there tend to forget is that there is a difference between documentary (or, as Bill Nichols calls them, non-fiction films of social representation) and journalism.

Putting aside the fact that documentaries engage in a constant, ongoing battle with their own inherent truth claims, they are not journalistic articles. Documentaries take a stand; they may attempt to persuade us to adopt a specific stance, or they may just simply want to express their particular view on a subject.

A documentary filmmaker definitely should be responsible to story in the ways highlighted in these posts, but I also feel that as filmmakers (and not journalists!) we have the right to expression and creativity, because the documentary axis spans not only 'Record' but 'Art' - and is not art the freedom to express ourselves?

Sure, there are codes of human conduct and moral rights and wrongs to keep in mind, but I think that filmmakers have to maintain the fullness of their stand too, otherwise their films would just end up being no different from news reports.

“Aggregation” was included under the ethical working principles of Social Media in this blog post. I must say that it is a practice which I strongly value but have been more than often, neglected by documentary film-makers. As an audience, I like to hear out all points of view and then decide if I want to take sides and if so, which side to choose.
In “Zimbabwean Women Affected by Political Violence Speak Out”, a documentary posted on The Hub, Witness, I only had a chance to listen to the stories of the victims who were raped or badly beaten by the Zanu-PF Youth during the political violence within the country in 2008. How about the other side of the story presented by perpetrators and government officials? What would their stand be? As an audience who has never heard about such outrageous abuse towards Zimbabwean women, I would like to know more from the different people in the country.

With much emphasis on the stories of the disempowered, it somehow feels like a closed text (i.e. a clear voice of the documentary: you must sympathise with these women). If there were different sides being presented, perhaps by members of Zanu-PF Youth who had committed the atrocities, it will empower the audience by allowing them to think through what they have said and ponder over it, make their decisions on which side they trust and finally, motivate action.

While documentary film-makers seek empowerment for the disempowered, they should not overlook and compromise the power that an audience should have.

I have to agree with what Sharlene said.

At the end of the day, the objective of all documentarians is to voice a concern or point of view to the general audience. Even though some filmmakers may modify or edit the visuals in order to bring out a message, I think the "you are wrong in doing that" judgment should not be handled to them so quickly.

Take for example Michael Moore, he has been criticized for staging events and distorting "truths" in order to showcase his opinion on a certain event. However, his films do address real issues at hand and he blatantly points this out to the audience, telling them "hey, this is happening in society and it is wrong".

Whilst his methods may be unorthodox, his message / voice comes across to the audience instantly. People become more aware of the situation around them, and I'd say he has done a good job to reach out to his intended audience.

I am not saying that it is a GOOD thing to distort visuals, but I feel that filmmakers, on one hand, should be aware of the ethical responsibilities they have, but they should not be TOO caught up with "doing everything by the book".

To add on to what Sharlene and Melvin have said, I was thinking about balance and bias earlier when looking at the Public Secrets project. As much as the accounts of the prisoners are horrifying in many ways, I did find myself wondering what the other side of the coin is. Because the initiators of the project are not journalists, they aren't obligated to provide balance to their material -- their mission is unapologetically to address the abuse that goes on in women's prisons.

It makes me think also about the whole concept of a marketplace of ideas, where ideas jostle, conflicting and supporting, to supposedly give us a whole picture at the end of the day. Because projects like these often stand alone on one side or the other of a fence, it very much depends on the viewer to seek out the opposite opinion if they want to balance out the impression they have received. I don't know whether most viewers would do that, and it makes me feel like the filmmaker is still responsible in some sense to at least point people in the right direction. It seems intuitive that social media could provide that, enabling documentarians to present their material and, in a way, set it free to the marketplace of the internet, and let people orient it into place, kind of like how Wikipedia handles information.

I think citizen journalism has found a partner in citizen documentarianism, if there's such a word. It may be good that the world wide web and many social media avenues allow 'commoners' to do any sort of documentary and claim it to be so since it can be in the form of words or an interactive website as well. Actually some of them seem more to me like GP essays and it kind of starts to lose the documentary meaning to it.

I've always felt that documentaries lean towards snippets of reality, like it is responsible for the truthfulness of everything shown in the film. But with this 'citizen documentarianism' - where anyone can produce a 'documentary' on basically any that interests them, it seems to me that truthfulness is compromised. To me, it seems almost cheapened because each individual online documentarian has different interests and may not be all that concerned with honesty. Sure, it is any human's right to produce anything they deem fit, but it doesn't seem like all of such producers are responsible towards the public audience. Though these online means allow for more viewer participation and action, I feel that more questions need to be asked about responsibility to audience and the people filmed. Where would these clips end up and what effect will it have?

Documentary should not be a word used loosely as it only blurs the lines and makes defining one even tougher. And the grey area in which some films fall within is large enough.

I agree with Melvin. People shouldnt be so quick to point fingers. Ethics is always about the person on one side versus the person on the other side. It is all so subjective. I think that ultimately, as long as the filmmaker feels that the subject has been represented fairly, and the audience has not been deceived (whether it's deception by irresponsble use of archival footage or fiction trying to pass off as non-fiction), I think it's safe for him to declare himself as an ethical film maker. Since there are no hard and fast rules or a set code of ethics, the onus is always on the film maker. This endless debate about ethics has been plaguing us for years, but the good news is that these 'ethical standards' will change with the times, and who knows, maybe something that is deemed unacceptable now will be all right in the future.

I have to agree with Sharlene that as documentary filmmakers, we should have the freedom and right to expression and creativity as well as a voice or perspective on a certain issue or subject matter.

Documentaries are not journalistic articles, although both documents, but the intent and purpose is not the same. If journalism was to report the truth, inform of a specific event or issue, or to spread knowledge, then I would see documentary as going a step further than pure reporting. Documentary builds on the information, issue or subject matter and empowers it with the ability to persuade or, in most cases, brings out a certain perspective determined by the filmmaker. It is just like how readers of a news article can have varying views and takes on it, documentary is the projection of such standpoints brought forth by the filmmaker, through the content and process of the film.

Ethics on its own is already a tacky issue to deal with. It is a subjective matter and is hard to define. There are no specific boundaries of what is right and what is wrong, the extent of being unethical also varies with different people. I think, with the rise of social media and conveniences brought about by technological advances, it further complicates the issue. In my personal opinion, whether something is ethically right or wrong is largely determined by an individual's background, cultures and education. Though documentarians adhere to a certain set of guidelines and ethical codes, the general public or users of the social media medium may not, and so conflicts arise. Everyone has their own idea of what's right and what's not, what's acceptable and what's to be avoided or even condemned, just like how the Youtube video on police brutality that was brought up earlier in part 2 of this series of blog post has demonstrated. User comments span across a large spectrum, from agreeing to disbelieving in the video's message, visuals or intent.

I think what the online media and rise of social media has done was to bring documentary content, in fact all types of content produced, to a much larger audience than before. We are now dealing with audiences of different cultures, values and beliefs.

Regardless of whether the audiences agrees or disagrees with the filmmaker on the issue, the perspective presented or even the choice of visuals, the baseline is that documentarians should avoid abuse of footages or subjects they have to the extent that it distorts the truth fully.

"Ethical engagements will be conditioned by the technological operators of online services, the creators of software and hardware."

The aforementioned is ideally how it should be but how involved should the technical operators of the online services be? And if they are involved, is it feasible for them to consistently filter all the videos for any distortions in the meaning of the original source? It won’t be an easy task as determining whether one video has in fact distorted the true meaning behind the original footage is a qualitative judgment that cannot be programmed, or at least be programmed to work effectively.

Another way is for them to personally watch each video to check for any distortions. That may work for websites like Witness, since it focuses mainly on documentaries, but it won’t work as well for other video streaming websites such as YouTube or social networking websites like FaceBook as there are simply too many videos, of various genres uploaded at any one time. Besides, such websites have other things to worry about such as videos violating copyright issues et cetera to be too concerned about distortions of meanings in the videos.

Hence one solution to this is to get thinking and intelligent netizens involved. For instance in the video, “Police Brutality– Police Get What They Deserve”, one viewer dismissed the video simply because the video did not state the context in which those footages took place. Despite his/her not-so-polite comment, he/she still manages to identify the loophole and I am sure that he/she is not the only one. Hence, what that viewer could do was to take one step further and report the video to the operator of the website. The operator could then decide whether or not to take down the video.

Of course, there is a setback to that. If videos are being removed constantly for the slightest distortion in content, it will discourage the netizens from uploading their videos and hence lesser material for discourse which is the beauty of such websites. But I guess, you can’t always have your cake and eat it…

I agree with what Melvin and Sharlene said. As documentary fimmakers and/or producers, it is important to know that yes, ethics are important, but so is getting across a point. And one of the ethical issues I was thinking about was actually "rigging" - setting up of a certain scenario in order to create an environment that could elicit or invoke certain real reactions from people in order to prove a point.

Is that ethical? Yes, and no. Yes if we know what standpoint from which we view it from. If it's the case of: Ok, this is purely an experiment to see if this works if the subject is placed under certain situations, then I do not see it as the set up of a lie to show the audience, because every emotion possibly invoked was a reaction of the subject to a situation that he or she was not informed of.

Then the question that arose was, when then, does it cross the ethical boundary? Would I have broken the 10 commandments of Ethics? Would it not have been real? Was it a lie? Was it unethical? I don't know, really.

But I do agree with Melvin, Documentary fimmaking is afterall an artform. Keep them as guidelines and compass, but don't let the rules of ethics cram your creativity. Follow

It is true that documentary is more of an art than an act of reportage, but it is crucial to note that responsibilities to that represented and audience remain.

I agree with the previous comments about the importance of not mixing documentary and journalism. As a journalism student, I learned that stricter rules apply when we report and represent our subjects as compared to documentary filmmaking. However, we must practice our craft with responsibility as well.

The power of the media to color perceptions and sway emotions are not new ideas. We all know them. And with new media (youtube, facebook, twitter) rapidly infiltrating our daily lives, information travels faster than ever yet authenticity can seldom be verified. And in terms of video where visuals drive the communication, they are more believable as lay people tend to adopt the "seeing is believing" mantra.

As someone had mentioned citizen journalism, I would like to point out a difference between citizen journalism and documentary. I think the main issue here is trust. Citizen journalists are not treated with the same trust as documentary filmmakers. People tend to trust the 'professionals' more, and that is where our responsibility to the audience and subjects in our films become even more so crucial.

In conclusion, there are two reasons why I think these rules must be as closely observed as possible despite the fact that it might hinder with our creative expression at times. 1. The new media is very powerful in influencing people. 2. Common people trusts us, making our influence even greater.

As Spiderman puts it, with greater power comes greater responsibility. We have a powerful communication tool in our hands that is made even stronger with the advancement of the new media. Let us practice it with discretion and responsibility.

All of these rules are extremely useful and good for documentarians to keep in mind. However, I think it is important to remember that documentaries are not supposed to be strictly unbiased, their whole point of existence is to show a side of an issue. Yes, some issues seem to only have one "good" side to us, such as The Cove, a documentary on the killing of dolphins in Japan. I doubt anyone would make a documentary supporting the killing. But it would also be strange for someone to just say "This is happening." To simply say that and not say that it is bad seems pointless.

I agree with Emily in that documentaries don't necessarily need to be 100% unbiased. Documentaries are created to provoke thoughts in the viewers, and in doing so they need to present a bias for the viewer to consider. While bias in journalism is bad, bias in documentaries is not because often the purpose is to show the filmmaker's view on an issue, or to expose an issue. Journalism is a different story because the news is where people go to to get the facts of what's going on. People watch documentaries to be informed also, but the content is not as current as what's in the newspaper or on TV - Documentaries take time to put together, so the content will be at least a few months old by the time they are released, therefore the documentarians can afford to put their own bias into the project.

I'm pretty sure that I'm going to have to violently disagree with Hallie Sacks comment that read, "If a documentary cannot be made without dismissing ethics, it has no business being made."
Many people have expressed their various views regarding ethics regarding documentary production, as well as subject matter. How heinous are the events we are showing? How concerned should we be with consent, and preserving human dignity? The subjective nature of these matters need not be questioned.
My only thought is, should ANY form of art be made whilst "dismissing ethics completely?" There's definitely something to be said for being respectful of your subjects' rights and wishes. Yet even films that are graphic in their exposition or seemingly amoral in nature do so with purpose: they are drawing attention to atrocities that they feel society needs to be made aware of (be it in a nature that is journalistic, satiristic, or any other kind of '-istic')
However, none of these works disregard ethics completely. In fact, the ones that seem the most likely to have "dismissed ethics completely" are probably the ones that thought about morality the hardest. At least the ones that end up having any kind of lasting meaning whatsoever. The rest are probably just edgy for the sake of being edgy.
Just saying.

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