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.


8 Responses

  1. Hi Deborah, thanks for your input. I completely agree with you that there are unethical practices in every medium. I am biased, of course, because I have only worked at newspapers and seen how my colleagues and I told a story versus how the local broadcast reporters would.

    Of course my next post could be “Print journalism ethics need to change” and focus on photo manipulation, print plagiarism, and yes, unethical videographer practices.

    However, I do think it helps to focus on differences between mediums when condemning practices with specific examples to spark discussions like this. Otherwise my post would have just been another broad journalism ethics post that everyone has heard.


  2. I agree with Deborah that Tracy is misinterpreting a cutaway shot (and still misunderstands it from her comment above). That’s not staging, it’s used for editing purposes. I basically did the same thing yesterday when my interview subject refered to a thick paper report she was holding. She picked it up and gestured to it during the interview. After the conversation was completed, I asked her “can you hold that up again so I can get some shots of it?” She obliged– and I didn’t feel slimey or unethical at all.

    Believe me, I know there are unethical people in TV news, but there are in print as well. I don’t think there is a huge discrepancy among them. And there are far worse offenses to worry about than the standard cutaway shot.

  3. The art of visual storytelling is 50% being in the right place at the right time and 50% anticipating where to be at the right time. I don’t support filmmaking of any sort when it is to be applied to a journalistic effort. It’s not truthful.

    In the case of a sit-down interview, I always leave my subjects mic’d-up at the end of the interview and work the room for a few minutes. This serves two purposes: 1) I manage to get all the cutaways I need and 2) it provides an opportunity for capturing better interview sound-perhaps, even, from a different angle, giving you another fresh interview look. Interview subjects tend to be more relaxed and natural and you never know when another aspect of your story will reveal itself.

    The one shot I despise most in network long format pieces is the contemplative, look-out-in-the-distance-with-the-blank-look-on-your-face shot, as if the subject is in deep thought about his or her life. It’s ridiculously over-used and unimaginative. To make it even more effective, one needs to be oceanside, leaning on the rails of their deck, or sitting by the window, looking out like a scene from One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.

    Bottom line for filmmaking “photojournalists”: You snooze, you lose.

  4. @Elisha I don’t believe I am misunderstanding the difference between a cutaway shot and a staged shot. If the videographer is there long enough, he/she can get enough natural cutaways, simply by letting them talk candidly before the interview begins or keeping them mic’d for every minutes after, like Kim mentioned above.

    I honestly believe that asking the subjects to reenact this emotional stare at one another is staged and unethical. In the story, it says that this look had nothing to do with the interview, but rather personal problems in their relationship (as it turns out, they were in the midst of getting a divorce). If you need a cutaway shot, wait until it naturally happens. It’s just not truthful to capture this fake, emotional look.

    You might not have thought that getting different shots of the paper report was unethical, but I would not have done that. That’s like asking your subject to walk back through the door so you can get multiple angles. The first time it happens it is natural … any time after that it is staged and therefore, in my mind, unethical.

  5. I think there’s something to be said here for adhering to the letter of the law vs. the spirit of the law.

    To me, the “spirit of the law” in play here is basically that, as trained journalists, we don’t make up the news — i.e. attaching an explosive to a truck’s gas tank to show how unsafe they are. Of course, print journalists and photogs wouldn’t do that anyway, because of the medium’s limitations. An ethical videographer wouldn’t do it either.

    Ideally, the videographer would have caught the longing gaze on the first pass. Didn’t happen. So there have to be several questions running through the mind — and a decision to be made in a matter of seconds:
    Do I ask them to pose for this shot?
    Will it look fake if I do?
    Can I live without this shot?
    Will my story look crappy, or not have the same oomph if I don’t?
    Will my editor say, “Gee it would have been nice if we could have had them gazing into each other’s eyes?”
    Do I feel like hearing my editor complain?
    And my favorite: “What’s for lunch?”

    Kidding about the last one, unless somebody’s buying. But to me the overriding question is does it change the content of the story?

    With this particular story, it’s weird because it’s a written story about a broadcast story. I can understand why the cameraman did it. Do I condone it? No.

    But don’t we have to ask the question of how so much of “news” these days could be called “infotainment.” So many newsmagazines and local news broadcasts need ratings just like their scripted counterparts. To get ratings, you need drama or some kind of entertainment value. It has to LOOK interesting, just like a TV show has to LOOK interesting. If that’s the case, do we cut the video journalists some slack?

    I mean technically, as soon as you set up the camera, whatever you’re aiming at becomes the “stage,” doesn’t it?

  6. Following Tracey’s argument to its logical conclusion means that the very use of cutaways is unethical since they use shots of someone reacting or listening to something other than what the edited spot is presenting.

    I guess the only ethical solutions are jump cuts or two cameras on every interview.

  7. I think telling someone to look at another person while on camera is a bit beyond the line, but I’ve got to ask…

    When newspapers get a fancy posed cover photo of a woman at the grave of her son killed in war… or a shot of a priest-sex abuse victim looking contemplatively at a stained-glass window… or a shot of an unemployed person standing at the gate of his former factory, is that “staging”? If not, how is it different than asking someone to pick up a stack of papers or saying to an interview subject at her office, “Please check your email so we can get some shots of you at your computer”?

  8. […] for visual clichés. Back on February 11 I replied to Deborah Potter’s blog posting on “Say no to staging“, referencing those irritating and overused pensive shots the networks like to use on their […]

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