Video ethics

Shooting and editing video is hard. Not hard like chopping wood or climbing a mountain. But hard as in juggling while riding a unicycle backwards and telling a really funny joke. So, it’s tempting to take shortcuts.

Several years ago I was watching an episode of PBSNature titled “Eagles of Mull.” It was about a nature videographer named Gordon Buchanan who returned to his native Scotland to find and film the rare and nearly extinct white tail sea eagle.

As I watched the program, I noticed something odd. As luck would have it, I happened to be recording the episode on my Mac and saved the episode. Below is a short clip in which the “odd” event occurs. See if you can spot it:

Did you see it?

Chances are you didn’t, but that’s ok. I wasn’t sure I did either, when I first watched the video.

Notice the scene behind Gordon when he’s first setting up to film the otter:

After this shot, he packs up his camera and gives chase to the otter. It’s cute and funny and we all smile along with the Nature-like Benny Hill chase music. Then Gordon sets up after the chase and we see this:

Notice anything? It’s the exact same background! Don’t believe me? All right then… let’s layer the two photos over each other and see how they align. Simply drag your mouse over the photo to reveal the layers.

I did have to crop the images slightly, but as you can see, if you pay close attention to the background on the right, they align perfectly.

This really cheeses me off. The implication in the clip is that Gordon is in one place, then he gives chase and sets up in another place. But that’s clearly not what happened.

And that’s a problem. Because once you spot a lie, you just don’t know what else is a lie. Was it even a wild otter? Is Gordon even in Scotland? Is Gordon even Scottish?

OK, I’m kidding about the last part, but you see the problem. You simply cannot take these sorts of shortcuts because you are misleading the viewer.

And I understand the impetus for doing it. People are hard enough to control. Wildlife is even worse. They simply don’t perform on cue.

Recently Chris Palmer of American University and a producer of nature documentaries, wrote about the fraud that exists in the genre. It’s rampant and disgraceful, and far worse than the example above.

However, this problem isn’t just for nature filmmakers. Video journalists have this problem, too. It’s a lot harder and a lot more time consuming to think ahead, imagine what a shot might be, set up and hope it happens. It’s a lot easier and faster to tell people what to do and say and get the shot you want and need.

And with more and more journalists getting video cameras shoved in their hands, it’s critical they understand the boundaries. In my mind, Eagles of Mull crosses that line.

Sadly, I’ve seen video journalists do cross that line, too. It’s very distressing. Yes, any form of storytelling is subjective. Yes, there are multiple perspectives. But readers and viewers should at least trust that what they’re seeing isn’t being made up.

Unfortunately, what I spotted in Eagles of Mull made me question everything about the rest of the program.

It’s a lesson for us all.

(Special thanks to for the rollover code and for @couch for alerting me to it.)

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One Reply to “Video ethics”

  1. I beg to differ. Or, better put, to differentiate a bit., and it’s a very, very fine distinction. Generally speaking: if you do commercials, you are lying every single frame (lying here implies also exaggeration, over-simplification and so on) and that’s it. But you, your client and your audience know that, but all pretend not to; like a dancing ritual from a 17th century king’s court.
    And, as a matter of fact, we all do tell some lies in what we show – commercials are just a extreme case.
    Telling the story truthfully would be my meterstick. I think we all know that a wildlife photographer who would let himself get filmed while doing his documentary wouldn’t have shot a second of footage worth using. Which I do know, you do know, the audience does know, especially nowadays with everybody running around shooting their holiday video. Pretending your audience is dumb as horse manure is as bad as outright lying.
    So, in this example, the storytellers intention is obvious: shooting a wildlife documentary is not an office jo b and it is a single persons job – which implies that almost all takes from Gordon are what they are: specifically shots which were filmed for the purpose of seeing Gordon in action doing his work. Insofar there is no moral dilemma and I do think you never expected a second unit shooting a filmmaking in the wildlife, did you?
    However, part of telling your story truthfully is indeed to do that without that blatant an edit. You simply don’t misstep while dancing a waltzer with your partner, that’s basic handicraft. Which is what I don’t like: bad handicraft, which always result in bad storytelling.


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