The ethics of staging



When it comes to television journalism, what is considered "staging" and where do you draw the line? Daniel Viola won an AEJMC Award in Chicago earlier this month for this piece, which examines varying degrees of television staging — from recreating events, to asking sources to walk down a hallway or type at a computer — and whether one is more ethically acceptable than the other. 

By Daniel Viola for the Ryerson Review of Journalism

Last November, Thailand was suffering through its worst flooding in 50 years. While Thai citizens are no strangers to high water levels, the heavy monsoon rains had left more than 800 dead and thousands displaced. As a result, television news crews from around the world were on the ground to put a human face to the natural disaster. In the midst of it all, Hungarian-born freelance reporter and Carleton University alumnus Tibor Krausz ventured from his home in Bangkok into the flooded streets of the city to take some photographs.

It was just after 7 a.m. when he arrived right outside of the city's Chinatown, a neighbourhood east of the overflowing Chao Phraya River. Krausz was surprised at what he saw. "Even though the water was basically knee deep, or even deeper," he says, "people just tried to go about their lives." A similar scene greeted him near the Grand Palace, where street vendors continued selling food. Some children were even swimming in the knee-deep water, enjoying an impromptu pool party.

But in one section of the street, Krausz saw a small group of  Thais standing on sandbags surrounded by water, looking at their feet, hesitant to cross. A British television reporter stood nearby, explaining to the camera that the people were burdened with the question of whether to cross the harrowing street. Just off camera, meanwhile, the children continued frolicking in the water.

Once he was finished recording, the reporter thanked the locals, who stepped back into the flooded street without hesitation and continued on their way. Krausz approached the crew, identified himself as a fellow journalist, and asked why they had staged the report. Upset at being questioned, the reporter replied, "Well, have you done any television journalism?" Krausz took that to mean that such staging was a common occurrence. 

Five minutes later, while wandering through a small market, he saw just how common it was. A Thai camera crew had asked a group of soldiers to stack sandbags and was filming the scene, at one point telling the men to stop and start over. Apparently, the crew felt one of the soldiers was smiling too much. It took two more takes until the reporters were satisfied.  

Krausz wrote about the two staging incidents for The Christian Science Monitor, admitting it felt strange to report on fellow journalists. "I think a lot of journalists, they have this sort of omertà, you know, like the Italian Mafia's code of silence, that you would not actually speak about other journalists," he says. "And even myself, I didn't feel good about this. But I think sometimes you have to speak up." 

As to when you should speak up, however, it's not always clear. For Krausz, the motivation was simple: in staging scenes for their cameras, the journalists were needlessly distorting the reality of what was actually happening on the ground in Thailand. 

But what about the far more widespread practice of shooting B-roll—or sequencing shots—for news reports, when the journalist asks the subject to pretend to answer a phone call or walk down a hallway for the camera, for example? Such innocuous, generic scenes are regularly spliced into news reports, but they're no more real than the footage of Thais feigning fear in the flooded streets of Bangkok. 

While most television journalists have no problem with the staging of generic footage for news reports, there are detractors. Their argument? By allowing the creation of such everyday scenes, broadcasters are leaving the door open for reporters to push the boundaries of what is acceptable—and in the process, diminish the credibility of television journalism. 


To read the rest of Viola's award-winning piece, click here. Or to read other articles from this issue of RRJ, which was also a winner at AEJMC, click here