Tuesday, September 8, 2009

'Honest Truths' Studies Ethical Issues for VJs

Videojournalists face a slew of moral and ethical quandaries in every stage of shooting and editing their stories. A new study intelligently and engagingly addresses some of the most prevalent.

It's called Honest Truths: Documentary Filmmakers on Ethical Challenges in Their Work, published by American University School of Communication's Center for Social Media.

This study provides a map of perceived ethical challenges that documentary filmmakers—directors and producer-directors—in the United States identify in the practice of their craft. It summarizes the results of 45 long-form interviews in which filmmakers were asked simply to describe recent ethical challenges that surfaced in their work.

The interview pool consisted of 41 directors or producer-directors who had released at least two productions at a national level and who have authorial control. Most of those makers had experience both with nonprofit outlets, such as public TV, and with cable or commercial network television. Also included were four executive producers in national television programming organizations. The population spanned three generations.

Documentary filmmakers identified themselves as creative artists for whom ethical behavior is at the core of their projects. At a time when there is unprecedented financial pressure on makers to lower costs and increase productivity, filmmakers reported that they routinely found themselves in situations where they needed to balance ethical responsibilities against practical considerations. Their comments can be grouped into three conflicting sets of responsibilities: to their subjects, their viewers, and their own artistic vision and production exigencies.

Filmmakers resolved these conflicts on an ad-hoc basis and argued routinely for situational, case-by-case ethical decisions. At the same time, they shared unarticulated general principles and limitations. They commonly shared such principles as, in relation to subjects, “Do no harm” and “Protect the vulnerable,” and, in relation to viewers, “Honor the viewer’s trust.”
Among the topics discussed:

* Staging, restaging, and effects

* Framing and editing

* Paying subjects

* Sharing decision-making and/or control of final cut

* Protecting vulnerable or endangered subjects

* Reselling or distributing images in other contexts

* Deliberate deception to achieve a greater good

The report concludes:

When filmmakers face ethical conflicts, they often resolve them in an ad-hoc way, keeping their deep face-to-face relationship with subjects and their more abstract relationship with the viewers in balance with practical concerns about cost, time, and ease of production.

The ethical conflicts put in motion by these features of a filmmaker’s embattled-truth-teller identity are, ironically for a truth-telling community, unable to be widely shared or even publicly discussed in most individual cases. Sometimes filmmakers are constrained by contract, but far more often they are constrained by the fear that openly discussing ethical issues will expose them to risk of censure or may jeopardize the next job.

Filmmakers thus find themselves without community norms or standards. Institutional standards and practices remain proprietary to the companies for which the filmmakers may be working and do not always reflect the terms they believe are appropriate to their craft. Their communities are far-flung, virtual, and sporadically rallied at film festivals and on listservs. Filmmakers need to share both experience and vocabulary and to be able to question their own and others’ decision-making processes without encountering prohibitive risk.

Documentary filmmakers need a larger, more sustained and public discussion of ethics, and they also need safe zones to share questions and to report concerns. Any documentary code of ethics that has credibility for a field with a wide range of practices must develop from a shared understanding of values, standards, and practices. A more extended and vigorous conversation is needed in order to cultivate such understanding in this field of creative practice.
Download the study here (PDF file).

No comments: