Guest Speaker Emily Bazelon on Ethical Links Between Filmmaking and Journalism

We were lucky to have another fantastic guest speaker this week. Emily Bazelon, who writes for Slate and the New York Times, answered a number of our questions about ethics in filmmaking and journalism.

Her first piece of advice was to “choose an identity for this project and to be our journalist selves.” One risk for this kind of project is that we might go in thinking that we can wear both hats, both as an objective journalist (and collector of good footage) and as a protector of the people in the film. The problem then is that if we’ve represented ourselves only in the latter way, we might damage relationships with the people we’re working with if we then proceed to act more as a journalist and less as a protector. Essentially, there’s danger in setting up a premise and then deviating from that premise.

It’s also a good idea to presume that people are not at all media savvy. If the person you’re interviewing doesn’t deal with the media all the time, then it’s very easy for them to get confused. Sometimes you have to be more than just *clear*; you have to say what you don’t mean as well as what you do mean. The key is that when you encounter a worst-case scenario, you are sure that you did everything you could to prevent that scenario from happening. We should try to err on the side of not using material if it makes someone upset.

As for litigation, a journalist has no other obligations and is free under the First Amendment to investigate as much as they can, outside of protective orders and the like – and more informally, outside of wrecking the case of a lawyer, or making someone’s life worse off.

One way to protect people in a film is to hide their identity by blurring their faces. The trickier question here is when someone says that it *is* OK to show their face.. how do you know that it is really OK? Probably a good idea to ask advocates in this case whether it’s a good idea. You have to decide how to tell a story – whether or not to use peoples’ faces. Sometimes just showing another body part (hands, etc) in conjunction with their voice is sufficient; sometimes it’s not. With print, it’s obviously easier to take people’s names out; with film, it’s a bit more difficult.

You should not promise that a film is going to make a situation better for a person. You can instead say something like “I’m very interested in your story and want to do an interview with you; I want to do whatever I can to protect you from legal risk; what I want to hear is simply your honest truth-telling.” Then you have to keep reminding the subject of who you are and where you’re from. The interview subject’s guard will eventually come down, but you have to be sure not to take advantage of this as you become more loyal to the film by cutting corners on your promise.

Safest territory is to stay closely within your identity as a journalist (not lending small amounts of money and so on to a film subject), but this can be hard to pull off especially when working with people who seem vulnerable. The problem with deviating from this identity is that the subject can become beholden to you. One possible solution, if you want to give money, is to give it to them after the project is complete. Blurring the lines of journalism, while easy to do, can create complications for the subject, and can make it hard for you to dial back from the blurred line. So say that what you’re offering the subject is *listening* to them.

A question came up as to whether we have an obligation to communicate to subjects how their interview might be used and juxtaposed with the perpsectives of people with whom they might not agree. Generally, there is no such obligation to say “the project will not entirely be from your point of view,” but we should make an effort not to twist or deviate from the words of interview subjects. One way the Times solves this in the editing process is by taking quotations and reading them back to the people who allegedly said them, and determining whether the quote is accurate – no need to practice “gotcha” journalism. Especially if you’re creating characters in a movie, you want the characters to be both believable and recognizable to the characters themselves.

“Most stories don’t have two sides; they either have one side or many sides,” said Emily, quoting Linda Greenhouse. It’s OK, then, to have an opinion and to present a reported opinion without trying to hide the ball; you can even attempt to lead people to a conclusion while attempting to present the best counterarguments in an honest way.

Sharat pointed out that one tricky part with film is that it’s possible to keep an entire statement in a film but to show images that might contradict what is being said. E.g., Michael Moore’s use in “Roger in Me” of images that conflict with the words being said. This is a very powerful and sometimes dangerous filmmaking tool.

A class member asks what the line is between being fair to a subject and making an argument? For instance, we might have footage and affidavits that conflict with that footage; how do we make this juxtaposition? In the case of testimony conflicting with actual fact, seems acceptable to use.

The way that people respond to story and narrative is through a few individuals. Certainly, don’t represent that you’re speaking for an entire group’s common experience when you’re showing one person’s experience, but don’t tie yourself up in knots with worries about essentializing the characters.

Closing thoughts from Emily: Be open-minded towards your subjects. If everyone gets mad, it sometimes can be a sign that you’re doing a good job. Also, being open-minded and honest doesn’t necessarily mean saying what you think to an interview subject all the time.


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