This module addresses these ethical questions:
- Is it OK to edit out a newsmaker’s routine speaking stumbles?
- What about electronic techniques to enhance audio quality?
- What about mixing pieces of audio together?
- Do the subjects of person-in-the-street interviews need to be identified?
When people hear audio, they generally expect that they’re hearing what a person actually said. Is that what we should always deliver?
Most outlets agree that when a reporter records a report for broadcast, it’s fine to edit out stumbles and errors — just as we edit a text story.
But suppose the voice belongs to a newsmaker? Is it OK to edit out “uhs” and “ahs,” long pauses or false starts on sentences?
Some news outlets believe it’s fine, again invoking the practice of many journalists regarding written quotes (we don’t include “uh,” etc.). The key thing, they believe, is for the audio to fairly convey what the speaker said.
Others, however, believe that listeners come to audio with different expectations, thinking that you should broadcast what was said, warts and all. In this day and age, it is a logical assumption that listeners who hear your report will also have access to the exact words of a newsmaker, if he or she is speaking at a public forum. Some listeners will compare the original to the editing you’ve done, and demand an explanation. They may say you should have faithfully reproduced what people said, in the way they said it. The only way to do this is to use full clips, “uhs” and all — unless there’s disclosure that the material has been edited.
Sometimes an audio producer will mix elements: the voice of a person, say, along with background noise collected separately. Some believe this is legitimate as long as it reflects a normal state of affairs; for instance, one could record a factory manager speaking in a quiet room and then mix it with sounds of the factory because he or she is usually on the factory floor. Others consider any such mixing a violation of ethics, because it creates an audio scene that in fact never existed.
A producer may also stitch together sound bites from various parts of a speech or conversation to make them sound as if they all happened in sequence. This can be risky. Because audio lacks the ellipses used in writing, listeners may believe the sentences were spoken in exactly that order. Some producers believe the technique is OK, so long as it doesn’t distort the speaker’s meaning. Others consider it deceptive editing. One way to solve the problem is to break the passages up somehow — with commentary or fades — so it’s clear what has been done. Or to explain — say, in the credits after a program — that the sound was edited.
What about other techniques to enhance a piece of audio? Most news outlets allow standard procedures like equalization and minimizing of telephone line noise to improve the quality and understandability of audio cuts. However, there could be an issue in taking a voice over a static-filled line and making it sound crystal-clear; listeners may be confused over whether the person was speaking from a remote location or in your own studio.
Sometimes questions arise about whether people interviewed in person-in-the-street situations (“The fire was the biggest I’ve ever seen.”) need to be identified by name. Some broadcast organizations take the same approach in these situations as a newspaper might with regard to anonymous sources: For credibility, a name must be used unless there’s a compelling reason not to do. Other broadcasters feel a non-controversial, ooh-and-ah kind of quote doesn’t need to come with an ID. It’s more atmospheric than actual news.
The main author of this section is Thomas Kent.