‘There’s gotta be a better way’: Ethical dilemmas surround eyewitness video

Dallas police stand watch near the scene where four Dallas police officers were shot and killed on July 7

Allison Griswald was relaxing in her apartment after a long July day at work when she heard a popping sound coming from the street outside. She went to her living room window, and after a few minutes she picked up her phone and began to record. As police cars sped down the road, sirens blaring, it became clear something dramatic was unfolding. She posted the video to her Twitter account with a note saying she thought there was a shootout.

She was right. In Dallas that night, during a march protesting police shootings, Micah Johnson opened fire, killing five police officers and wounding seven others. In the minutes following her Tweet, Griswald was inundated with messages from loved ones, strangers, and media organizations seeking permission to use the footage. At first, Griswald responded to the media affirmatively. But as the size of her Twitter following swelled from 100 or so people she knew to 3,000-plus mostly strangers, she was soon overwhelmed. From what she could tell, news organizations were using the video with or without her permission, so it didn’t seem to matter whether she responded.

Griswald regretted posting the video almost immediately. Journalists wanted interviews, and overtures from some members of the press began to feel entitled and intrusive. Until then, Twitter had been the one place where it was common knowledge Griswald is gay. Suddenly Griswald became anxious she would be outed to family members she hadn’t yet told, who she didn’t want to find out from her rainbow profile picture. It was only the beginning of a mounting headache for the 31-year-old attorney.

Griswald’s experience isn’t new or rare. As news sharing on social platforms gathers steam, breaking news videos shot by eyewitnesses are going viral every other week. The phenomenon raises a host of questions for publishers, platforms, and eyewitnesses themselves. How can journalists ensure videos are authentic and judge whether it’s ethical to re-publish them? How can social platforms prevent fake news content from proliferating? How can journalists minimize harm to eyewitnesses who are suddenly thrust into the center of a breaking news cycle?

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A coalition of social platforms and media organizations–organized by a London-based nonprofit–aims to answer some of these questions. First Draft, which helps journalists navigate the legal and ethical quagmire of social news gathering, last week said it plans to partner with Facebook, Twitter, The New York Times, and Buzzfeed, among many others, to develop tools and guidelines that will answer some of these questions, with particular focus on verification and the improvement of the experience of eyewitnesses.

To combat the the proliferation of fake photos and videos online, First Draft plans a collaborative verification platform called Check, which was developed by one of the organization’s founding members. The platform will enable journalists to follow verification guidelines to assess the authenticity of eyewitness content and share their findings with others. “People can add a piece of content or eyewitness media, and everyone in the partner network will have access to it and will be able to contribute in the verification process,” says Alastair Reid, First Draft’ managing editor and former editor of a UK-based publication focused on digital journalism. That verification status will then be shared with the entire network so journalists aren’t wasting time verifying content when others have already done so.

Reid uses Griswald’s experience as an example of how the media should not behave in connecting with eyewitnesses. “There were about five different organizations, each with four or five people from them being like, Can you get in touch?” he says. “As an industry this is damaging. It looks bad, when you have one person having hundreds of requests from journalists saying, Can we use your picture? Can you call me? Can you DM me? Here’s my email. Here’s my number. And it’s all happening in public.”

Reid says there are already things organizations can do minimize double ups, such as creating internal protocols with tools like Google Docs and Slack to ensure everyone knows when someone has been contacted. A bigger question is whether there can be collaboration between organizations, and that’s where the partner network comes in. “The big part of it, to be honest, is getting everyone in the same room to talk about these problems and … see if there are ways to work together,” says Reid, who notes First Draft won’t be taking on an agency role or paying content creators. The effort is entirely devoted to verification and won’t coordinate copyright, licensing, or contact information associated with photos and videos.

First Draft and similar organizations, such as Eyewitness Media Hub and Online News Association, offer guideline templates companies can implement internally to manage rights of amateur images and videos. Reid emphasizes the onus is on news organizations to abide by them, pointing out that it makes good business sense to do so. “It’s not just about the morals,” he says. A news organization’s behavior “impacts on the news brand and on the relationship with audience … If an eyewitness has a bad experience when dealing with a news organization, then they’re not going to be a source in the future.”

In Griswald’s case, trust did play a factor in how she interacted with the media. She agreed to do interviews with CNN and NBC because she thought they were more trustworthy than other outlets. She was also familiar with the big name anchors—Don Lemon and Brian Williams—doing the interviews and figured they would be less likely to take the conversation in a direction she didn’t agree with. She refused permission for Fox News to use her video because she says she didn’t trust them to use it in a constructive or objective way.

There were other downsides to her experience. In the weeks that followed, Griswald found herself bombarded with violent, racist, sexually explicit, and otherwise inappropriate tweets. She switched her account to private to try to avoid exposure to harassment, but it was already too late. Once the video was live, she couldn’t control how it was used, or where her name and photo wound up. She saw people posting her video as ammunition for viewpoints she wanted no part of, with captions such as, “this is why Black Lives Matter is a bad movement,” and, “this is why cops shoot n*****s.”

No one offered Griswald money for the footage, but monetization is often a factor in eyewitness video, and it adds to the mounting pile of ethical dilemmas surrounding social news gathering. “I think the ethics of creating a market for graphic content is really problematic and doesn’t get talked about enough,” says Claire Wardle, research director at the Tow Center for Digital Journalism and co-founder of Eyewitness Media Hub, which studies eyewitness news gathering and suggests guidelines.

The press must be careful about commissioning content that exposes citizen journalists, or otherwise, to danger, according to Reid. “There is a responsibility on the part of news organizations to understand the risks that eyewitnesses may take to get footage for them and to not encourage that because in some situations and some stories it’s people’s lives that they’re risking,” he says, citing instances where sources in Syria delivered footage and were never heard from again.

As Facebook and Twitter begin to open up monetization more widely, Wardle hopes these kinds of lessons are internalized by the platforms. “In 2005, YouTube didn’t have the history to think [they were] going to become the evidence locker of the Syrian war… whereas Twitter now should have thought these things through, and I hope that their policies will be shaped by what we’ve learned,” Wardle says.

The prospect of financial reward also creates an incentive for people to produce fake footage, which returns to issues of verification. “I have an entire career, at least 10 years if not longer, that is based off the fact that people can trust me,” says Zach Roberts, a photo and video journalist based in Upstate New York who freelances for wire news outlets. “If it comes out that I’m lying about a photo … then all of my work becomes up for question, and that’s my entire livelihood.”

As he points out, the stakes aren’t as high for non-journalist eyewitnesses. As the number of citizens “committing acts of journalism”, as Roberts phrases it, continues to rise, tools like Check become even more essential.

The sheer magnitude of content shared daily on social platforms, and the breadth of issues social news gathering raises, make attempts to corral it into some sort of order seem like a Sisyphean task. Reid says the coalition will be tackling issues one step at a time.

As for Griswald, the experience did have one upside: It encouraged her to come out to her entire family and social network. “I was like, You just need to tell everybody because that’s ridiculous.” she says. “There’s a shooting going on downstairs and that’s what you’re worried about?”

Her feedback to the media? “There’s gotta be a better way to do it.”

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Shelley Hepworth is a CJR Delacorte Fellow. Follow her on Twitter @shelleymiranda.