Say no to staging

It’s always good to be reminded that there are ethical lines in journalism that shouldn’t be crossed. One of them is staging–telling people what to do or asking them to repeat what they’ve done so you can get it on camera.  As Tracy Boyer puts it at Innovative Interactivity:

Allowing videographers to stage scenes, situations and/or actions is NOT journalism. We are here to document what we see, not recreate what we missed.

I can’t argue with that, but I wish Boyer hadn’t titled her post “Broadcast journalism ethics needs to change.”  And I wish she hadn’t asked, “How is it that journalism ethics can vary so greatly from print to broadcast?”

The truth is, there are unethical journalists in every medium–something Boyer briefly acknowledges before zeroing in on her main target, TV photographers.  What set her off was this New Yorker piece describing an ABC News interview:

Before the taping, Ron gave Tina a bereft, searching glance. The cameraman was hoping to capture it. “Could you look at your wife again?” he said. Then he asked Tina, “Could you look at your husband?”

To Boyer, that suggests the photojournalist was trying to make up for having missed the “money shot” he needed to create an emotional story. To me, it suggests the photojournalist knew he was going to need some cutaways so he could edit a two-person interview being shot with one camera.  Good people might disagree about whether that qualifies as staging.

Don’t get me wrong. I do not condone staging. It’s not just a violation of basic journalistic principles; it damages the credibility of every news photograph and video. The NPPA ethics code, which applies to all photojournalists, doesn’t use the word staging but its message is plain:

• Respect the integrity of the photographic moment.
• While photographing subjects do not intentionally contribute to, alter, or seek to alter or influence events.

I’m not wearing blinders, by the way. I know staging happens. I’ve had fights with TV photojournalists who have tried to “direct” people while shooting B-roll for stories I’ve reported.  But I’ve also seen print photographers stage shots in the field, which is equally unethical.

To make the case against staging stick, it’s not useful to point the finger at just one set of violators (TV) and quote just one set of critics (print), as Anh Stack does in this piece at Black Star. Let’s hear from broadcast photojournalists who don’t engage in staging. And let’s be clear that we’re condemning a practice, not a medium or all the journalists who work there.