The making of an investigative documentary – Part II

In her previous post, broadcast journalist Kristina Khoo, explained the practical aspects of preparing for and filming a video documentary. In this last instalment, Kristina considers the ethical issues she came across in making an investigative documentary about the homeless in London.

Gaining trust

While working on this documentary I had to deal with many vulnerable people from the mentally unstable to drug addicts, alcoholics, ex-prisoners and the entrenched rough sleepers. Filming such people was not easy. I could not simply whip out my camera and film whoever I wanted.

The footage at the soup run in Lincolnsfield Park in Holborn was a good example. I had received the green light to film from the charity representative, but some homeless people became disturbed and aggressive during the filming, and I had to stop. In hindsight, I should have explained to them clearly what the aim of the documentary was and given them the choice of coming forward to tell me if they felt uncomfortable being filmed. So as to be less intrusive, I used close-up shots of hands, food being handed out and far-away shots from across the street.

The right to film

I needed evidence for the documentary that the homeless were sleeping rough so I had to use some footage of rough sleepers in London streets, for which I did not wake them up to ask for consent.

But what does the code of ethics say? Director and film maker Philip Bloom says that, according to the Bureau of Freelance Photographers in the UK,  there are no laws in the United Kingdom preventing photographers from taking pictures in public places. But when the rough sleeper who caught me secretly filming him in Waterloo got distressed and chased me down with a cane (see part one’s ‘Risk taking versus safety’), I felt bad.


Another couple of rough sleepers, who had agreed to be filmed and interviewed, also became distressed halfway through recounting their stories, and were paranoid about who would be watching the documentary. I suggested blurring their faces and using an actor’s voice to replace their own so they could not be identified, to which they consented.

As the project progressed, my motivation started to shift. From a primary desire to secure a good interview, I started to feel an obligation to look after my interviewees’ welfare.

Rachael had been a victim of physical abuse and was covered in bruises, cuts and bumps when I met her, but she turned down my offer to use my phone to call the police. As a journalist, respecting the wishes of your interviewee is of utmost importance. I did not want to betray her trust, so instead of the police, I contacted a day centre with a medical facility and arranged for her to get there. But the urge to report the abuse to Rachael to the authorities was overwhelming.

Empathy vs. detachment

The subject of my investigation was naturally emotive for both interview and interviewee. While relating his story on how he came to first sleep rough, Henry shed a tear on camera. Instinctively, I reached out to touch his hand. I wanted to ask him if he was all right and if he needed time; we could stop recording. Then my journalistic mind kicked in, and I figured that I should probably stand up, move over to the camera and zoom into his tears and bloodshot eyes. I thought that would be great in drawing the audience to his predicament. Thankfully, I decided to sit still and quietly listen while letting him gather his emotions.

Letting Henry weep without interfering was hard for me to watch but, as a result, the documentary managed to convey his raw emotion to the audience, who can relate to him on an emotional level, even if they have never experienced homelessness.

Journalists are human of course and are not spared the grip of emotion, but principled, compassionate media coverage can be immensely powerful. As professor of journalism ethics Edward Wasserman said: “Turning away from immediate need is not an expression of indifference but of compassion and commitment. ”

Do you agree? Do you have different views you would like to share? Feel free to comment and start any constructive discussions.

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