Posted on June 8, 2007
Truth in audio: Have you crossed an ethical line?
Melissa Worden asks about ethics in gathering and editing audio. I am asked these questions a lot when I do training.
Worden found (and quoted) some excellent resources.
Here’s what I tell students:
- The cardinal rule is the same as in written journalism, when you write quotes into a story: Never change the meaning of what the person said. Never misrepresent what the interview subject meant.
- Truth is the paramount yardstick against which you must measure your work. Ask yourself: Is it true? Or have I distorted the truth?
- Never tell anyone what to say.
- You can ask someone to repeat what he said.
- You can say, “Would you tell me that story again, please?” This is useful if the first time, the subject rambled and skipped around a lot. She will be more coherent the second time.
- In editing, you can cut out “um” and “er” and stutters and repeats. Radio journalists recommend this practice. We do it in writing too.
- If you have a sound bite at the end where, for example, the person states her name and occupation, it is okay to cut that from the end and move it to the beginning. (It does not distort the truth.)
- It is NEVER okay to use canned sound effects that did not come from the scene. For example, you would NEVER take a clip of some cows mooing and add it to your interview with a farmer in his cornfield. If you didn’t get that farmer’s own cows, from where you were standing in that field, then you can’t use any cows.
The harder issue is time differences. Worden asks:
… if you record a prayer one night when you’re visiting a church group but you get the best photos the second week you visit that same group, is it OK to use that original recording?
The example I use comes from my book (Flash Journalism), and it was given to me by longtime multimedia journalist Regina McCombs at the Minneapolis Star Tribune: The photographer returned from shooting a kids’ tuba class with great pictures but no audio. The tuba class meets once a week. The online producer went to the tuba class the following week and gathered the audio. Same kids, same class — same tubas. Different week.
I think the ethics of the tuba example are no problem. The church group is a little trickier, in my opinion, because maybe that was a special prayer that does not match the photos you have from the second week. On the other hand, if it is a prayer they say every week, and the same person is praying in the audio and in the photo — then it seems true and honest to me.
Update (Sept. 3): I’m adding a few useful links to this post because I have been searching online for guidelines to ethical audio editing, and there isn’t much to be found!
- Sliding Sound, Altered Images, by Al Tompkins (June 28, 2002); great advice here!
- Ethics Guide for Public Radio Journalism, from the U.S. Corporation for Public Broadcasting (2004); not much here about the actual editing process for audio, unfortunately.
You can also check my bookmarks tagged “ethics.”