Ethical issues in the use of eyewitness material

BY NATASHA AHUJA| IN Media Practice | 20/07/2015
The new world of journalism includes the use of raw footage and eyewitness videos but the ethics of attribution lag behind.
NATASHA AHUJA explains the dilemmas

The past week has seen stories in the media about  the video about a foreign national against whom an FIR has now been filed for slapping a security guard when she was denied entry to an event. This video was first published by Vijay Verma, a PTI photographer, on his Facebook account.

This eyewitness video has been covered at length by media outlets in the past few days.  The issue is that most newspapers - in their digital and paper formats - have ignored the need to mention the source of this material. Here are just a few examples: –

Woman who slapped cop may be a diplomat, say police
Case registered against woman who slapped Manmohan Singh's security guard
>  Watch: Foreign national slaps ex-PM Manmohan Singh's security staff at Delhi event


Most media houses seem to be unaware that they must mention where they have taken the picture/screengrab of the video from, as though no ethics are involved in using eyewitness media. The exception is   this media story (in the Hindu) on this video of a youth against whom an FIR has now been filed for animal abuse. This video was first published on Facebook by the man himself, and the paper has attributed it. 

My aim, therefore, is to bring to light some rules which are being ignored today and the techniques being developed to aid journalists in following these new practices.

Often media houses/journalists find a powerful first person video on YouTube or an image on Twitter depicting a breaking news event where the eyewitness who took this image is unknown. While using this ‘eyewitness’ content, they are repeatedly faced with several questions: how to find the original source of the picture, how to verify it, whether they need to seek permission to use it, and whether they have the right to put the picture on air or online. Because a number of journalists are unaware of the answers to these questions, they ignore their responsibility towards the eyewitnesses.  There are also times when unverified eyewitness content is published.

So, what exactly constitutes eyewitness media? It is original, raw, unscripted video, audio clips and photographs captured by eyewitnesses and published or broadcast by news, creative, commercial as well as non-profit organizations. These media offer new perspectives to important news stories and are used extensively by the media. For example, stories on the Arab Spring, the protests in Ferguson, the Charlie Hebdo killings and the recent earthquake in Nepal, unfolded largely on YouTube and were used as media by journalists while covering the event. Newsgathering around breaking news events has been revolutionized by the pictures and videos captured by eyewitnesses and uploaded to social networks. Therefore it is very important for news organizations to be aware of the do’s and don’ts and of the tools available to help them learn what is correct.

Technology has transformed journalism in the past two decades. Not long ago, journalists would wince at the idea of using mobile footage to cover a breaking event. A study published by Eyewitness Media Hub (a global study of eyewitness media in online newspaper sites) highlights how user-generated content, social media and the internet have transformed the situation. It looked at eight popular online news websites (including The Times of India) over a three week period.

This research found that all media houses use eyewitness media. Also, a number of news websites are using this content without taking permission from the content creator. They often do not realize that irresponsible use of the content can expose the eyewitness to abuse or other unpleasant behavior. The  study found that, in comparison to its western counterparts, the Times of India (and other Indian news organizations) used considerably less eyewitness content.

The research said the reason for this  was probably that the major players didn’t invest in digital strategies as much as news organizations like the Guardian (UK).  Still, it was seen that TOI, in its  online news website which published 5724 articles over the three week period, used eyewitness content in 137 articles (i.e., one in every 45). This is a considerable amount of content and trends suggest that this percentage is bound to rise.

More than half of the eyewitness media in the TOI were standalone video pages (For example, – “ISIS video claims to show beheading of British hostage”) and about 13% were eyewitness images used for the photo gallery. In recent news, examples of eyewitness content used by the media include pictures of Bollywood star Shahid Kapoor’s wedding and the video of the foreign national slapping the police. The research found that 64% of all eyewitness content on TOI was labeled as eyewitness media while the rest was conveniently published without mentioning the source. Also, most of the eyewitness content was not credited to the eyewitness.

Here are some guidelines for media houses to follow when publishing eyewitness content:

1.     They must ensure that the content is embedded and not ‘scraped’ (stolen content published as their own). Embedding of content is important because it ensures that the content can be taken down by the content creator if they wish.

2.    Eyewitnesses, when requested, must be credited instead of agencies or platforms.

3.    Stills from videos (screen grabs) must follow the same protocol by crediting the eyewitness as would have been done if it were a video.

4.    Media houses must be consistent and transparent while labeling eyewitness media. Unverified content should clearly be marked as such.

The onus doesn’t lie solely on media houses. Social media platforms and eyewitnesses can also prevent scraping of content by a few simple methods. For example, social media platforms should make information about their users’ rights more visible and accessible. Tools should be provided to allow users to watermark content and users must be notified (just as they are for a comment on their content) if their content is embedded into a news site or retweeted. Eyewitnesses must ensure that they add visible credits on their content (For example, use the ‘Branding Watermark’ functionality of the platform or add their name to the title of the videos as a makeshift solution.

Educationists and other stakeholders must also strive to develop educational materials to inform eyewitnesses about their rights.

A very interesting case study showing how the Daily Mail had inconsistent crediting is worth looking at. It is called,  “The Pirouetting Buckingham Palace Guardsman – inconsistent crediting”.

Google News Lab is collaborating with journalists and entrepreneurs to apply technology to newsgathering. Bolstering the positive impact that eyewitness content can have on journalism, Google Inc. has come up with three new initiatives – YouTube Newswire, First Draft Coalition and WITNESS Media Lab.

Google News Lab is partnering with Storyful to create the YouTube Newswire, a new offering for journalists in search of the most newsworthy user-generated videos that have already been verified and cleared for use. First Draft Coalition is a coalition of thinkers and pioneers in social media journalism are coming together to create educational resources on how to verify eyewitness media and use it in news reporting. In collaboration with WITNESS, the WITNESS Media Lab will address the challenges of finding, verifying and contextualizing eyewitness videos for the purpose of creating lasting change. These tools will be extremely relevant for all people studying and practising journalism.

As the rules of journalism and newsgathering change, some ethical codes need to be adapted and some new ones devised.  Mark Little from Storyful summed it up thus: “Crediting a social platform (eg. “Source: YouTube”) is no more logical or informative than citing ‘Source: Telephone’ ”. While the best innovations in the media come when journalists and technologies work together, media houses must ensure that they are being ethical in their use of new types of media.


The Hoot is the only not-for-profit initiative in India which does independent media monitoring.
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