Guidelines for Ethical Video and Audio Editing

 

The public is greatly affected by how you edit sounds and images for radio and television news stories you put on the air. Photojournalists and editors should exercise the same level of ethical professionalism and accuracy in editing sounds and images as reporters and producers are expected to exercise in their choice of words, soundbites and facts.

 

Added sounds and music in both television and radio stories have the power of setting the tone for a story and can even change the meaning of the piece. Often the public remembers the visual images in a television story long after they forget the story's narrative. That is testament of the underlying power of "the visual."

 

The RTDNA's Code of Ethics says: "Professional electronic journalists should not manipulate images or sounds in any way that is misleading."

 

The Code also says journalists should not: "...present images or sounds that are reenacted without informing the public."

 

The National Press Photographers Association Code of Ethics says: "Editing should maintain the integrity of the photographic images' content and context. Do not manipulate images or add or alter sound in any way that can mislead viewers or misrepresent subjects."

 

These statements set a foundation for how journalists should think about their responsibility to edit stories in a way that results in stories that are accurate and truthful.

 

1. Do not reconstitute the truth. Don't add sounds that did not exist unless it is clear to the audience that they have been added in the edit room. Don't add sounds that you obtained at another scene or from another time or place if adding the sounds might mislead the audience. Do not add something to a story that didn't happen. This goes further than never invent or make things up, for it also encompasses rearranging sounds in time or place. To move sounds from the scene in which they occurred to another where they did not, is to turn what was once fact into fiction.

 

A good question to ask in such circumstances is, "What would audiences say if they knew the truth about how this story was gathered and edited?" Would viewers feel deceived or tricked?

 

When adding any sound or effect, it should be obvious and apparent to the viewer that the journalist has chosen to alter the scene or sound. Ask yourself, "Is this what I heard when I was on the scene?"

 

2. Be judicious in your use of music and special sound effects. When you add music to a story, the audience must understand you have added the sounds. Music, especially, has the ability to send complex and profound editorial messages. If the journalist records music that occurred at the scene of his or her story, then that is ambient sound that might ethically be edited into the story. However, if the music is a soundtrack audio recording, then journalists must ask themselves whether the music adds an editorial tone to the story that would not be present without the music.

 

3. Use photographic and editing special effects sparingly and carefully. Slow motion, slow dissolves, tight cropping and framing, dramatic lighting and unusual angles can all send subtle or even overt messages to the viewer about a person's perceived guilt, power or authority. Indiana University researchers Brooke Barnette and Maria Elizabeth Grabe found that: "Viewers are apt to place more blame on those who are shown in slow motion than those in standard motion. The accused people who appear in slow motion in a crime story were rated as more guilty of killing a teenaged girl than the same people who appeared in the standard speed version. Moreover, the weeping mother shown in a fire story was rated significantly more responsible for the death of her children when she was shown in slow motion than when she appeared in standard motion." Barnette and Grabe's study concluded that, "Slow motion makes the story seem less fair and informative and more sensational."

 

Using production techniques to highlight an individual or object in a photograph can attract undue attention to that aspect of a photograph.

 

4. Apply the same careful editing ethics standards to your newscast teases, promotions and headlines that you do for your news stories. If it is unethical to add sounds or production techniques to a news story than it is just as harmful to use those techniques during a promotion for that news story.

 

Finally, ask yourself if your story would pass "the front-page frisk?" How willing would you be to explain your editing process if the local newspaper called you and started asking you questions for a front-page story? How willing would you be to reveal your editing techniques to the public?

 

Created through RTDNF's Journalism Ethics Project by Al Tompkins, broadcast/online group leader at The Poynter Institute