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Best Practices Make Space for Creative Use

To Pat Aufderheide, ethics has more to do with tools than rules.

Tools to ensure that the subjects of films know what they’re getting into when they agree to be filmed. Tools to shine a light on the ethical challenges of documentary filmmaking. And tools that allow creators and scholars to navigate the changing media world, where people who want to use snippets of copyrighted work—such as a song playing on the radio during an interview—are often stymied by fear of lawsuits.

Aufderheide and Washington College of Law professor Peter Jaszi helped create codes of best practices of fair use to empower artists to exercise their creative freedom boldly and safely.

Talking with filmmakers about their challenges opened the floodgates to an even broader topic: ethics in documentary films. That led to the report “Honest Truths: Documentary Filmmakers on Ethical Challenges in Their Work,” which has caused a stir in the film community with its frank discussion of concerns that are seldom laid on the table.

“There’s a strong belief among documentarians that it’s really important to be ethical. At the same time, they’ve found themselves routinely in situations where they felt they were betraying this fundamental part of their identity,” says Aufderheide, whose work with the Center for Social Media has established her as a leading voice in new media scholarship.

Promised anonymity, filmmakers spoke frankly for the report. The School of Communication professor and her fellow researchers were focused not on finding out what’s “right,” but on providing a map of the perceived ethical challenges.

For instance, is it ethical to pay subjects for their time? In journalism, the answer is a clear no. “But many filmmakers find that’s far too rigid a rule,” Aufderheide notes. “They’re not just interviewing someone and walking away. They’re effectively living with them, maybe for years. They also get asked to do things that are very complicated. Are you supposed to bail somebody out of jail? Get them into a drug treatment program?

“What we discovered is not only do they have these ethical conflicts, but they don’t have any public conversation about them. They live in a small world where they’re very sure if they don’t take a job somebody else will, and it would be unsafe to their reputation, to their careers, to openly acknowledge their conflicts.”

Her goal isn’t to regulate practices, but to spark honest and open discussion. “I think nobody wants to be lectured at, nobody wants to be told how to behave,” says Aufderheide. “But if people themselves deliberate, what they come up with is not a set of rules, but a way to think which will help them deal with these issues.”