AND DOCUMENTING REALITY
By Wolfgang Achtner
copyright June 2002
In his article Darrell
Barton argues that many journalists who condemn staging are themselves
guilty of the practice. According to Barton, this occurs when they alter
reality by using dramatic lighting to shoot interviews and manipulate
their subjects' schedules in order to obtain B-roll video that
can be used to cover the interviews when editing their report.
Personally, I am convinced that specific cases referred to by Barton
do not constitute staging, since shooting a formal interview situation
in television news is comparable to the shooting of a formal portrait
in still photography.
And yet, even though I am in disaccord with Barton's view concerning
what constitutes ethically appropriate behavior when shooting interviews,
I share his concerns as regards the issue of staging. This is such an
important issue that it deserves serious consideration by anyone who
wants to be considered a journalist.
As a matter of fact, many people in the television news business, including
photographers, reporters and producers, don't understand why we can't
stage anything if we want to be considered journalists. The usual question
is: "What's wrong if you stage an interview? ... Who cares?"
Staging or faking something cannot ever be tolerated. Period.
This is one of the most important ethical rules, never to be broken,
as long as we're working in NEWS. I repeat news. This includes spot
news, features, magazine pieces, documentaries, video essays, etc.
Matters of ethics are extremely important to me as a working journalist
and as a journalism educator. In my workshops and university courses,
I stress the point that "credibility" is the key attribute
that distinguishes a journalist from the public at large.
This attribute will only grow in importance in the near future, since
vast numbers of ordinary people (non-journalists) will have a digital
videocamera and a computer with an edit system (Apple already distributes
I-movie editing software for free with their computers) and will be
able to disseminate "information" over the Internet.
It is important to keep in mind the distinction between a professional
-- someone who makes a living by covering the news - and an amateur
- someone who uses a videocamera purely for recreational purposes
but who may, by chance, shoot video of a news event - since the
amount of video obtained from amateurs and used by news organizations
in recent years has increased steadily, to the point where it is now
reasonable to assume that - at least in most cases, especially
in the richer, industrialized nations - there will always be
some video of a newsworthy event.
This point was strongly underscored by the numerous contributions from
amateurs that were used in the compilation of the documentary, "In
Memoriam," that dealt with the terrorist attacks against the World
Trade Center that took place in New York, on September 11, 2001, and
that was aired on HBO, in May 2002.
The public at large understands -- consciously or subconsciously --
that a television report (I'm referring to what is called a "cut
spot" or "package") is constructed by assembling shots
that have been filmed at different angles and different moments. Even
those who are not aware of the mechanics of storytelling would have
no problem understanding and accepting the system, once the procedure
was explained to them.
At the same time, viewers expect, or take for granted, that a news report,
including long-format reports such a documentary, is an accurate representation
of reality. And, it follows that, if asked, they too would recognize
the need for some sort of label, warning system or whatever that would
help them distinguish news programming (reality) from fiction and or
entertainment (this includes so-called "reality" programming).
During the past year there has been an intense debate in the newspapers,
on the message boards of professional photographers' websites and in
"Shoptalk," concerning the fact that the public should be
warned that so-called "reality" shows are more or less scripted,
and it has been suggested that it might be useful and appropriate for
such programming to carry some kind of warning to this effect.
In fact, there already is a label that protects and guarantees the public
and distinguishes non-fiction from fiction and it's the words "journalist"
This is precisely why "credibility" is the most important
attribute for the individual journalist and for each and every news
organization regardless of how it is distributed (newspaper, broadcaster,
internet site, etc.).
For this very reason, as journalists, we must take extreme care to preserve
our credibility/reputations by avoiding any behavior that might even
suggest the possibility of staging.
The same principle applies to "re-enactments," that should
be avoided at all costs; in those rare situations where a re-enactment
is deemed necessary, all care must be taken to make sure viewers are
warned and aware of the fact that what they are watching is a re-enactment
of an event and this must be explained by the reporter and by the use
of a graphic superimposed on the tv screen.
As a matter of fact, part of the public is actually convinced that programs
like MTV's "Road Rules" and "The Real World,"
and other similar shows like CBS's "Survivor" are
an accurate representation of reality. This only reinforces the two
points I would like to make:
Any kind of programming that carries a "news" label must be
an accurate representation of reality; as professional journalists (meaning
that we make a living from our trade), we must protect our credibility
at all costs in order to distinguish ourselves from both the producers
of fiction and the public at large.
Before we confront the issue of staging, I believe it is necessary to
deal with the so-called "reality question."
In a posting on the Platypus Park message board, fellow Platypus graduate
Dana Smilie wrote: "I started to question a lot of things, including
the 'documentary' work that I do, as to if it is reality? Its that old
thing you have heard before-- if the photographer is present, is the
subject acting real or "acting" for the camera. I never know,
not knowing how things would be if I were not there."
Smilie's posting prompted me to reply: "I hope you will
not mind if I dwell for a while on Dana's question since it is such
an important issue for anyone who works as a journalist and applies
to both to shorter pieces done for the nightly newscasts and longer
ones for news magazines or documentaries.
First the short answer: Whatever we produce is only a representation
That said, perhaps the best way to answer Dana's doubts is to quote
from Barry Hampe's excellent book, "Making Documentary Films And
(From) CHAPTER TWO - CINEMA VERITE` CHANGED THE WORLD
"(Ö) And when video technology caught up with and surpassed
film, it became possible to record with as little as a half-foot candle
of light and shoot forever on inexpensive videotape without the crushing
costs of film processing.
With these developments, filmmakers could - and did - record events
as they happened. And because they filmed real people (not actors) doing
real things in a real situation, it was almost inevitable that they
began to think of nonfiction filmmaking as documenting reality.
Because the footage was 'real', it seemed tp be the best evidence of
its own truth. 'Cinema' became 'verite`,' the camera couldn't lie, and
an entire generation of filmmakers went about trying to get reality
to fit into a little box.
It seemed so easy.
THE REALITY PROBLEM
The biggest problem in the development of direct cinema and the behavioral
documentary came from the undeniable fact that it was shot in a real
situation. That became the justification, if not the outright excuse,
for any number of conceptual errors.
Confusing Actuality With Truth
One was the error of trying to stuff reality into a box, which came
from confusing the 'truth' of the documentary with the 'actuality' of
the situation in which it was shot. If it happened, it's real, the argument
went. And if it's real, it's true.
It may be worth noting that the French chose the term 'verite`', not
'realite`', to describe 'cinema' as found in the behavioral documentary.
What is shot bears an ideal representation to what is shown. The documentary
shown to an audience is a carefully constructed analog that has been
abstracted from the footage that was shot. It has been tempered by the
overall truth of the situation as the documentarian understands it and,
indeed, by the 'honesty' of the documentarian constructing the program.
... There is a way to film people so that their speech and behavior
are consistent with their personality and beliefs, even when they know
that a camera and recorder are running. It's not such a difficult task
that it requires spy technology and hidden cameras. Nor is it so easy
that anyone can do it just by turning on a video camera and letting
it run. Recording human behavior take work, intelligence, an understanding
of human nature, a cooperative crew - and practice..."
(From) CHAPTER THREE
"If you're serious about documentary, you're going to have to come
to grips with the reality problem. You can start by getting rid of a
couple of notions that have had great influence on making documentaries
but simply don't hold up on close examination.
The Camera Doesn't Lie
The first of these is that the camera doesn't lie. Which is nonsense.
Cameras don't tell the truth, either. The simply record a very coarse
analog of the light patterns in front of the lens....
... It is only the mind of the viewer, making inferences from these
shadows and color patterns, that gives them meaning.
Actuality Equals Truth
The second notion, in all its eloquent and complex permutations, has
accounted for thousands of silly, unintelligible, and stupid films and
videos. It is this: 'What was filmed really happened; therefore it is
true, and will be accepted by an audience as true.' Which is simply
not true. Even if we define reality as whatever happens when the camera
is on, that is spontaneous, unplanned, unrehearsed, and undirected -
which neatly sidesteps several thousand years of philosophical speculation
about the nature of reality - there is no reason to assume that what
was captured by the camera is 'true.'"
Furthermore, it is important to consider that it is possible to distort
the events captured on video by the camera using a commentary in which
the facts represented on video are deliberately misrepresented. I still
remember how Rolf Behrens illustrated this very point in a brilliant
fashion during the Platypus I Workshop, when he shot video of Dick Swanson
exiting his bungalow, getting into his car and driving off down the
road, and then replayed the same video with two different voiceovers.
In the first, Dick the successful manager was on top of the world, riding
off to bigger and better days, in the second version, he was old and
washed out, riding off down Sunset Boulevard.
In either case, an unknowing viewer watching the story on television,
would have been convinced that it was the "truth," a faithful
rendition of the recorded event.
Back to Hampe.
DIGITALLY ENHANCED IMAGES
Not long ago, the existence of an image was at least evidence that what
was shown happened. No longer. Digitized images and powerful computers
can create scenes of things that never were, in such a way that no one
may ever be able to judge whether what is shown is a record of something
that exists or an artist's fantasy.
... Reality is not enough. We are obliged to document as well as to
record. So let's agree that whatever the terms mean, 'reality' in the
external world and 'truth' in video and film are not the same thing.
The verifiable truth of a video or film depends on the honesty of the
documentarian in presenting an accurate analog of the situation as she
or he understands it. But that is still no guarantee that the audience
will accept the documentary as 'true.' It takes a lot of hard, professional
work to turn your record of what happened when the camera was on into
a documentary that will be believed by an audience."
That said, it is necessary to clarify the misunderstanding that might
arise from the fact that television news and videojournalism use the
language of film. This is indeed so, but television news journalists
are bound (as are print journalists, still photographers and any other
kind of journalist) to follow correct ethical practices.
We use the language of film but we do NOT make movies, i.e. a fictional
representation of any particular event. Simply said, when we say "We
shoot news," what we really mean is "We DOCUMENT events."
With this in mind, since staging is a major sin for someone who professes
to be a journalist, I would like to examine a few practical instances
that occur every day in real life and how to deal with these situations
in a ethically correct manner.
One of the most frequent situations that comes to mind is the shooting
of the video necessary to illustrate a transition, i.e., a passage from
one location to another or a passage in time.
A transition from one place to another (even if only from one room to
another) can be shown on video as follows.
In your first shot you have a person walking or a car driving down a
street and you let the person or the car exit completely from the shot
(what is called a "clean exit"); in the next shot you may
show the person walking somewhere else or the car driving down a different
street. This transition could be used to pass from the countryside in
the first shot to the city in the second.
In your first shot a car is moving in the country; in the second shot
your car enters the frame (a "clean entrance") and then appears
to be traveling down a city street.
Obviously, this same technique applies to a person entering or exiting
a house and such a situation could be shot like this.
C) From the outside, you see the person opening the door, passing through
it and the door closes and then, in the second shot your person can
be seen moving in any room inside the house. You could shot the opposite,
too. The person is shot leaving the house (from the inside) and then,
in the second shot can be shown walking anywhere outside.
D) You are inside, the door opens and the person enters and then the
action continues inside the house, or, alternatively, you are outside,
the person opens the door, exits the house and the action continues
In a normal situation, you wouldn't be able to shoot someone first from
the outside (or from the inside as they leave) and then be inside as
they enter (or outside as they exit). You might be able to shoot and
show it in a feature story (when you might be working on a story for
many hours or even days, weeks or months) because you might have shot
a similar scene during the course of your story (even so, I'd hesitate
to use the two together because the viewer might think it had been staged).
If you're shooting a feature film -- fiction -- you can do whatever
you want. That means you can shoot the same scene over from different
angles, ask for the repetition of any action, as well as direct this
action however it pleases you, in order to obtain the shot you want.
But, if you do the same thing while shooting news -- non-fiction --
you are STAGING.
Staging in TV news is akin to fabricating all or part of a print story.
Just as in print journalism this rule applies even to the fabrication
of a single quotation, the rule regarding staging in television applies
to the single shot.
In other words, a major ethical violation and grounds for serious disciplinary
action and, in many cases, a violation that would be considered serious
enough to prompt the immediate firing of the person(s) involved.
I do not practice and will not condone staging on part of anyone, nor
will any journalist worthy of the name.
Let me be absolutely clear. If you are shooting a hard news story, if
you let a person walking exit your shot, you must then run ahead to
pick them up and shoot them entering your next shot, entering or exiting
a building or whatever.
Furthermore, you are NOT ALLOWED to direct someone's actions in any
way or ask for repetitions: that would be staging. The name of the game,
in this case, is "anticipation."
If you are shooting a feature story, for example if you want to portray
an artist at work, you can call the person up and ask them if they are
willing to allow you to do a story on them.
Obviously, if the person accepts, you may ask them what day would be
convenient for them to have you come over to their house/studio and
it makes perfect sense -- and is ethically correct -- to ask them to
pick a day when they intend to work on a project, i.e. a painting/sculpture
or whatever it is they do.
Once you are there, it is also permissible to ask them to explain what
they will be doing, so that you can be prepared and can decide what
you want to shoot. While they are working it is permissible to ask:
"When you finish painting or soldering this part of the statue,
what will you do next?
This would allow you to set up a shot of them leaving a room or entering
another. Provided that you do not direct them in anyway or ask for the
repetition of any particular action, this kind of behavior is ethically
correct. What you are doing here is called "cooperation and anticipation."
There is one particular type of situation that constitutes an exception
to the rules: the formal interview.
In fact, there are times when it is acceptable to give a subject directions
-- as to where to sit or stand, but not about what they should say --
for a formal interview.
This kind of behavior is ethically correct. The reason for this is that
if we accept the fact that I can shoot someone behind their desk --
they are sitting there since I asked them to do so in order to shoot
the interview -- it is also permissible for me to ask them to stand
somewhere else or also to walk in a desired location with a reporter
during the interview.
Clearly, I am not pretending to document a scene, i.e., to shoot something
that would be happening without my intervention, since it is obvious
to all viewers that, unless someone is mentally unbalanced, they wouldn't
be talking to a camera unless I was there asking questions.
I repeat, I must not pretend that I am documenting someone doing something
that would have happened without out my intervention.
It is fair to assume that, since most people today have grown up watching
television, certain conventions are explicitly or implicitly understood
by all viewers.
As part of this exception to the rule that prohibits staging, when shooting
a single-camera interview, it is allowed to shoot reversals of the interviewer
asking questions after the interview is over, since it would be impossible
to shoot them while the interview is taking place. Similarly, one may
use inserts and cutaways that were shot afterwards, in order to edit
different sections of the interview and avoid so-called jump cuts. This
is a universally accepted convention.
For the same reason, I can put a radio mic on someone and then shoot
them as they work, go about their daily chores or interact with other
people (this situation would also fall under the "cooperation and
It goes without saying that, as regards interviews, it is not correct
journalistic practice to put words in an interviewee's mouth (leading)
or -- worse yet -- to tell an interviewee what to say.
Once again, I'd like to underline the fact that, when shooting news,
the key distinction we need to make is the one between a news story
and a feature/profile and/or a formal interview situation.
That said, even doing a news story, you can always wire someone with
a radio mic and then ask them a few questions and/or let them go about
In fact, even when you use a radiomic you can still act as a fly on
Usually, at most a few minutes after you've attached the mic, people
go back to doing what they were doing before you showed up or in any
case need to pay attention to what they are doing so they forget about
the camera. Putting on a radio mic does not alter the scene any more
than just showing up there. If someone starts acting for the camera,
I just wait a couple of minutes until everything returns to normal.
In those rare situations where it turns out to be impossible to shoot
any video without people acting for the camera, as might be the case
when shooting a political demonstration, for example, when editing the
final product, one needs to mention this fact in the narration.
In a message posted on Platypus Park, Abner Kingman explained how he
managed to interact with his subjects.
"In my own limited experience I have done three kinds of shooting
and for all of them camera obtrusiveness has not been a major issue.
1) the majority of my footage has been interviews for which I think
the subject's comfort level has been determined more by our pre-interview
conversation and the way the questions are delivered than anything to
do with the camera.
2) the main subjects of my piece have consented to have their every
move documented on video film and over the course of weeks have come
to ignore the camera. I think at this point I could be shooting with
an Imax camera and they wouldn't care. It would just be me hanging out
doing my thing. Their comfort with my presence has more to do with the
fact that we get along as people.
3) Even when I'm out shooting in a group of strangers I think my personal
appearance and interaction with people has been at least as important
as the camera I'm carrying. In the small town I've been shooting in
I wear jeans and a T-shirt and the fact that I look like I'm about 17
often disarms people. At an event like a little league game I'll do
as much socializing as shooting, and it's seems like a matter of time
until people relax and ignore me. Maybe part of that's the GL-1, but
it's got a Sennheiser mic with a big furry wind screen, and either a
tripod or the Glidecam, so it's presence is hard to ignore."
Having mentioned people acting for the camera, it is worth noting that
all so-called "photo-ops," including press conferences,
campaign speeches, ribbon cuttings and other similar events are in fact,
staged events. These events are contrived to allow an individual or
organization to address the public and are usually scheduled in advance
to facilitate coverage by the news media.
Since it is well known that most people get their news watching tv,
and theorganizers are well aware of the fact that television is a visual
medium, in many instances, as is the case during national political
campaigns, these events are carefully planned: the television cameras
and still photographers are confined in a restricted space or on platforms
that have been strategically placed so that the candidate will be shot
from an angle that will frame her/him in front of an appropriate backdrop.
In these situations, a report that consists solely of a description
of the event and one or two soundbites ends up being little more than
a free advertisement for the politician.
In order to avoid being used by the organizers of these photo-ops, it
is extremely important to place the event in question in the context
of a broader story. Ideally, a news report about the presentation or
the inauguration a new housing project, for example, should concentrate
on the merits and the costs and/or benefits of the project and not just
on the official ceremony itself.
It is undeniable that, if one chooses not to directing people when shooting,
it can become much harder to obtain all the shots that one would like
to get, but it really comes down to whether one wants to act as a journalist
Whenever you decide to stage something, you cross a line that is best
left uncrossed. Once you rationalize and find a reason to justify staging
something, it becomes much harder not to do it a second time, and then
a third, etc.
I know well of what I speak because I've seen Italian news photographers
stage everything they shoot. The idea being, "Why waste a whole
morning waiting for something to occur naturally if you can set it up
yourself and get it over with in five minutes?"
If you want to be a JOURNALIST, you DO have to wait an hour for someone
to walk across a street or the phone to ring, if that is what it takes
to get the shot you want. If you want to keep working in news, that
If you don't have the luxury to wait for something to happen, shoot
something else. News events are not tailor made to suit your requirements.
I can remember many occasions (including several when I used to work
as a still photographer) where I had to wait for more than an hour to
get a certain shot. That's the way it is in news.
These rules cannot be bent to fit the whims and/or desires of a news
director, reporter or whomever.
One of the most frequent objections that I've had to deal with
when explaining these rules to colleagues and journalism students is:
"Who makes these rules and why should I have to abide by them?"
The answer is that WE as journalists, or certain groups of journalists
who are concerned with matters of ethics, such as the Society of Professional
Journalists (SPJ), the National Press Photographers Association (NPPA),
as well as institutions like the Poynter Institute and many major news
(print and television) organizations, draw up these rules. These rules
are elaborated in order to define what constitutes correct professional
practice, and thereby to protect the credibility and reputations of
each and every working journalist and responsible news organization.
Periodically, the existing rules are modified or new ones are added,
to take into account situations arising from the adoption of new technology,
such as the fact that modern computers and effects software make it
possible to manipulate video in many different ways, that would not
be detectable by the public.
In other instances, the rules have changed because what was once considered
acceptable practice, no longer is considered acceptable today. For example,
it used to be considered acceptable practice to set up situations, to
stage or recreate events when shooting documentaries; nowadays, no journalist
worthy of the name would even think of doing any such thing.
I have often heard excuses from people who stage their shots. They usually
say something like this: "If the story is visually boring and/or
the talent is unable to act naturally whilst the camera is there, if
I set up a shot, I'm not distorting the factual essence of the story
or making the person do something they would not normally do. I have
to come up with sequences to fill a package and I haven't got the time
to wait all day for things to happen."
The key to interpreting this kind of behavior is in these words: "I
have to come up with sequences to fill a package. I haven't got the
time to wait all day for things to happen."
That IS the point: if you find yourself thinking in those terms, you
are thinking of your own convenience, so by intervening in one way or
another in order to get better pictures, you are obviously staging.
If you ever find yourself wondering whether or not something you are
doing or telling someone to do is staging, if you are asking someone
to do something because you "need" a shot, you are certainly
In real life situations, things happen or they don't. If they aren't
happening, it is just too bad for you if the event is slow, boring,
visually uninteresting, etc. That's the way life is.
If you want things to be exciting and to have control of the situation
in order to get great shots, my advice to you is that maybe you'd better
try directing fiction instead of working in news. Each time you commit
a serious ethical violation, in addition to your own credibility, you
have damaged the credibility of the news organization you work for,
whether you are aware of it or not.
Also, it is inevitable, that once you've crossed the line and
started bending the rules to your advantage, you will do so again and
again, and each time you will find a perfectly valid excuse (to you
only) to push the limit a little further.
In conclusion, you must always remember that honesty is like being pregnant.
You either are pregnant or you aren't. You can't be "just a bit"
Wolfgang Achtner is a correspondent and television
producer, author and journalism educator.
Was one of the first American "videojournalists" (those reporters
who cover events in the field, shooting their stories all by themselves)
to report on international events, working with a Hi-8 videocamera for
ABC News in East Germany, covering the protests in Leipzig that led
to the collapse of the Communist regime and in China, covering events
in Beijing after the repression in Tienanmen Square, respectively in
October and in June, 1989.
Last year he completed two documentaries, both reported and produced,
shot and edited by himself, including one on the consistory of cardinals
that took place on February 21, 2001. BBC World aired a 25-minute-long
version of The Papal Consistory, in April 2002. Currently onworking
a documentary on the rebirth of Italy's left-wing opposition
Achtner recently redesigned the news division of Italy's "La 7"
national network. Television experience is the result of more than twenty
years work for the most important American television networks, including
eight years as freelance correspondent for CNN and eleven years as reporter/producer
for ABC News.
He is a Professor of Theory and Techniques of New Media, Communications
Department, University of Siena.