Ethical Wednesdays: When Eyewitness Footage Cannot be Verified
Editor’s Note: This is part of a series on WITNESS’s Ethical Guidelines for Using Eyewitness Videos in Human Rights Documentation and Advocacy. Check back each Wednesday in the coming weeks for a new post on ethics and eyewitness video, or click here for previous entries.
Put yourself for a moment in the shoes of a human rights activist. A source has shared with you a disturbing online video. It shows a group of men torturing young men in handcuffs in what appears to be a grassy field. The uploader has described the victims as prisoners and the perpetrators as security officials. However, there are few visual clues that could help corroborate exactly where and when it took place–no badges or geographic landmarks. If authentic, it would support a pattern of allegations of this sort of abuse.
a.) Share the video widely, asking for the public’s help identifying the people in the video.
b.) Call for an investigation into the incident, explaining what is and is not known about the video, and sharing it only with investigators and advocates, to protect the privacy and dignity of those involved.
c.) Do not report on the abuse that appears to be documented in the video until you have more information. The potential damage to your integrity if the footage turns out to be different than what it appears is too great of a risk to take.
The Risk of False Footage
The most common risk of using eyewitness footage in reporting or documenting human rights is using footage that is false or out of context. There are dozens of examples of news outlets sharing footage they found online that was manipulated, taken out of context, or misinterpreted. It’s important to understand how easy it is to distribute false or manipulated footage and dupe the viewing public. A growing number of tools and methods exist to verify the authenticity of a video (the WITNESS Media Lab, Citizen Evidence Lab, First Draft News, and the Verification Handbook are a few good places to start).
But what if you can’t?
In some cases, there is simply not enough information available to verify when and where the footage was filmed, or even whether it is authentic documentation—i.e., not acted out or created to deceive viewers.
For example, a common method of authenticating videos is using geolocation–identifying geographic markers in the footage and corroborating them with satellite imagery or other visual documentation of the presumed location. This is possible if the video takes place in a public urban setting with identifiable landmarks, but much more difficult if it is within a home, a closed institution such as a prison, or a wide open field. Another strategy for researching a video’s authenticity is reaching out to the filmer, but media activists and citizen journalists often taken steps to protect their identities if they have reason to fear retribution for documenting abuse.
In these cases, you must use professional judgment to decide if and how to share the footage. Curating a video that later turns out to have been manipulated or misinterpreted could compromise your integrity and cast a shadow of doubt over authentic eyewitness videos. Worse, spreading false information—even unintentionally—could spark fear or violence, and have grave consequences for the individuals involved.
Ask the Right Questions
When faced with footage that you cannot verify with certainty as documenting a particular event, ask the following questions:
- Are there other videos or reports that document the event that are verifiable?
- Is there a reason the people behind this video would want to deceive viewers?
- Is it possible you made a false assumption about the video and the motives behind it?
If you decide the video merits being included in your report despite unknown details about it, be clear to your audience what you do and do not know about it, and give viewers a means by which to respond. It may turn out that by sharing the footage with a wider audience, viewers can help answer lingering questions about the video.
Here are two examples of how this scenario has played out.
A video that emerged online in early 2013 appeared to show the torture of two men by Fijian police officers. While the source, exact location, and date of the recording was unknown, the video was shared and reported on in local and international media, sparking a response from Amnesty International and the United Nations. The mother of one of the victims identified her son in the video and pledged to fight for justice, and authorities responded by conducting an internal investigation.
In a different case from 2013, an online video generated controversy and press attention in South Korea. The video appeared to show two Caucasian men harass a Korean woman at a nightclub. Though the identity of the individuals on camera and the context in which the video was made were unknown, the video and the controversy surrounding it was covered in a Washington Post blog. In response, the men involved in the video reached out to the reporter to explain that the video had been misinterpreted. They shared more footage and pictures from the scene to prove to the reporter that it was shot as part of an experimental film in which everyone was a willing participant. The reporter wrote a followup article, which is linked to in the original blog.
For more guidance, see WITNESS’s Ethical Guidelines for Using Eyewitness Videos in Human Rights Reporting and Advocacy. Click here to see more from WITNESS blog series on ethics and eyewitness videos, and share us your own methods and challenges in using eyewitness video by reaching out on Twitter or sending an email to feedback [at] witness [dot] org.