9.1. Assessing and Minimizing Risks When Using UGC

Written by Madeleine Bair

Photos and videos that emanate from areas of the world rife with repression and political violence, or that document vulnerable populations, come with risks beyond the possibility that the content has been manufactured or manipulated. In these situations, individuals behind and in front of the camera may face the risk of arrest, harassment, torture or death. That danger can increase if international media picks up the footage.

We saw this during Iran’s Green Revolution of 2009, when the Islamic Revolutionary Guard used photos and video stills they found online to target protesters and crowdsource their identification, actions that sent a chill through the activist community.

Identity exposure puts individuals at risk of retribution by repressive authorities, and can lead to social stigma as well, with its own potentially severe consequences. Just as news organizations adhere to standards for protecting the privacy of rape victims, journalists should consider these same standards when using video that exposes vulnerable people, particularly if it appears to have been taken without their informed consent.

For example, in 2013 U.S. online media and advocacy organizations reported on an alarming pattern of abuse targeting LBGT youth in Russia. Many of their articles embedded photographs and videos shot by perpetrators abusing their victims — exposure which could perpetuate the harm and stigma to those victims.

Journalists and others should not censor video taken by activists who knowingly take risks to speak out or document their community. But journalists should take basic steps to identify and minimize harm to those who may be unaware of those risks, or who lack the capacity to give informed consent to the recording. In the case of the Russian abuse video, it’s clear that the victims did not consent to being a part of such footage.

Assess the potential for future harm

First, you must assess whether an image or video could cause harm to those involved. Are they in a dangerous part of the world? Do they risk reprisals for sharing this information, or for being shown? Can you safely assume that the people shown in the image/video consented to being filmed?

If there is a real risk of harm, you have two options:

  1. Don’t use the image/footage. Just because it exists does not mean it needs to be shared/broadcast/published. We can report on it in other ways, and use it to inform our work.
  2. Blur the identities. Television newsrooms often blur faces of vulnerable individuals when they broadcast their image. Photographs can easily be edited to blur faces. For online videos, you can re-upload the video to YouTube and use its face blurring function. Explained here, the tool was created to protect the identity of vulnerable subjects in videos, and can be found as an “Additional Feature” when you click on the Video Enhancements tool to edit a video.

One credo encompassed in the standard codes of ethics for journalists, crisis responders and human rights workers is to minimize harm. Taking the time to assess and minimize harm to individuals when using citizen media is one way to put that credo into practice in 21st century reporting.

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