Wednesday, August 01, 2007

Media Ethics and Deception

It's been hard to move in the UK recently for the media handwringing and mea culpas at the discovery of an apparent spate of deception in the TV industry. First, the Queen didn't storm out from her photo session with Annie Leibowitz; and now it appears that a man's death of Alzheimer's that was shown on television earlier this week was not in fact his death. The chief philosophical question this raises is: what it to be honest when you are editing a documentary?

The cases of the Queen and of the Alzheimer's sufferer are relatively straightforward. In both cases, something was shown as happening when in fact it did not. And it seems reasonable to think that this is dishonest.

But what should our criteria for honesty in editing be? A documentary - if it is to have anything like a popular appeal - needs a story arc. It needs to introduce characters, get us involved in their fates, and interested enough to see how their story develops. But clearly the subjects of the documentary will be ordinary people, with messy ordinary lives which do not usually conform to the dictates of a well structured narrative. So it looks like the very process of structuring someone's life into a coherent narrative will involve a kind of falsification. So what is to be done?

One option might be to think of editing as a form of interpretation, and transform the question of truth in editing into one of truth in interpretation. But it looks like it will be forbiddingly difficult to flesh out an account of what it is for an interpretation to be correct. So, currently I'm becoming increasingly tempted by the thought that we should pass the buck on the problem of truth here, and focus our moral attention instead on ensuring that no one is wronged by the documentary that results. So long as no one has a reasonable complaint about the way they have been portrayed, we need not worry about the truth in this context.


David Hunter said...

I see why passing the buck is tempting here, and the question of who is wronged is an important question to ask in any case. But I'm inclined to think that a documentary is aimed at being a presentation of the truth, not just a nice story. The problem is we want documentaries to play a special role, that of representing reality in a way that other types of shows don't.

So if a show is just presenting a nice story, that is fine, but we ought not refer to it as a documentary. (Reality TV presents a special problem here I think)

This of course doesn't resolve the issue of how much editing or selective quoting is compatible with presenting the truth. I would say that there is some leeway here. What I would think most editors should try and do is shoot a considerable amount of footage and then hopefully find footage that fits into a story arc or a hook that will keep the viewer interested without misleading them. A tricky job of course.

Anonymous said...

Hi James,

Nice question. Insofar as an appreciably large amount of our beliefs about the world are formed on based upon film, photography, and the media alone, I think these sorts of deceptive practices are really detrimental to our whole knowledge-gaining enterprise. (As an illustration of the above point, consider that the vast majority of us would, if asked, unhesitatingly claim to know what Winston Churchill, the pyramids of Egypt, or a Duck-billed Platypus look like, say. Such knowledge is, for most of us, based on photography and film alone, rather than first hand perceptual experience of the world.)

Insofar as self-knowledge of our own personalities and dispositions is not something that persons are always very good at (I think my friends and family are probably better judges of my long term personality traits than I am), I'm not sure I agree with this:

So long as no one has a reasonable complaint about the way they have been portrayed, we need not worry about the truth in this context.

Also, suppose the Queen didn't mind being portrayed as storming out of the photo shoot because, as it turns out, that's what she wished she had actually done! So suppose she has no complaint about how she was portrayed, even though she has been falsely depicted as doing something she did not, in fact, do. My intuition is that this wouldn't make the editorial decision in question any less deplorable.

James Wilson said...

Dan: I think you're right here. In general, the subjects of the documentary will be happy to be presented in a way that flatters them, and so it is hard to see how the subjects could claim to be wronged by a sycophantic documentary of them. (As Joe Orton once said, when accused of libelling Winston Churchill in his play What the Butler Saw by implying that Churchill was particularly well endowed: "I wouldn't sue anybody for saying that I had a big prick. No man would. In fact, I might pay them to do that.")

But nonetheless something has gone wrong in these types of case. The buckpassing account will have to refer to the audience here. According to it, the audience has a legitimate interest in not being deceived, and so one is wronged qua audience member by shoddy and deceptive documentary practices, even were these practices do not wrong the subjects of the documentary.

David: you're now going to ask me how I'll explain what it is to be wronged as an audience member without explaining this in terms of the documentary's failing to present the truth. I agree there is a worry here. I'm hoping that we can get away with it though. What we'll do is to demand specific complaints from audience members, which would have to be countered by specific responses by a programme maker. (In "Objectivity and Truth", Ronald Dworkin argues that we can basically adopt this strategy across the board: we can give up on debates on realism/antirealism, and simply confine ourselves to first-order moral arguments about what is right and what is wrong in specific circumstances).