My Audio Ethics Question

A week ago I went to photograph a farmers market in the city of Sauk Rapids. A reporter and the new multimedia intern, Breanna Roy (who does awesome work btw) came along to do video.

Later I was working with the reporter as she edited down her video. We were working out some audio problems when I suggested she take out an awkward “umm” that her subject said. That got us to talking about the ethics of taking out certain parts of what people say. In this case, I did not think it was a problem because not only was it an “umm” that did not change the content, it was at the beginning of the audio clip she had selected, not in the middle of a quote.

Is it okay to take out the “umms” and “ahhs” and dead silence that we get when interviewing people? How judicious can we be in selecting quotes and sound bites from what our interviewee has said? Is that any different than choosing specific quotes for print?

I actually happened to listen to a NPR segment on just this topic (but for radio, not newspaper audio/video) on my drive to Minnesota. The piece was made by a long-time NPR fan who later got a job doing production. Before working there, he always marveled at how slick sounding the shows were. It was not until he had to put a show together that he realized just how much editing goes on to create such a seamless dialogue.

Another ethical question came up when one of the editors was creating a video for the Fourth of July fireworks celebration. He added a music track to accompany the sound of the fireworks. The Santa Cruz Sentinel took a similar approach (same song), using still photos instead of video. Are there any ethical differences when overlaying music to video as opposed to still photos? Does it matter that there was a band playing at the Fourth of July fireworks in St. Cloud, though Mr. Knaak, who put together the video, was likely too far away from the park to hear them? Would it have been different if he had recorded the music at some parts, but then took it out and overlayed the other song?

These are the questions that keep me up and blogging at 5 AM…

3 thoughts on “My Audio Ethics Question

  1. Let’s say you’re putting together a raft of photos for a doubletruck layout and, well, you edit.

    You take out the one with the subject’s eyes closed, and the one that’s soft, and the one with the reporter’s shoulder blocking half the frame.

    Same rules apply to audio – cutting out an “Ummmm” at the beginning of a clip or rearranging clips out of sequence to tell a story is a completely normal part of editing audio.

    As far as music goes, I think as long as it’s obvious that the orchestra pounding out Stars and Stripes isn’t on the scene, it’s fair game. I wouldn’t have put some random marching band playing it in back of photos of a marching band playing, for instance, but let’s say I grabbed good audio of a full performance of it by a band on location and laid it in behind the rest of the parade, too — I think that’s fair game.

  2. Ethics always make for an interesting discussion as there’s no right or wrong answer.

    I agree with everything Ryan said.

    We’ve had this discussion at OU a lot in our audio storytelling class and even had Alex Bloomberg of This American Life talk to our class about it. I think you need to look at an interview as a portrait situation. Meaning you can edit out the umms and ask them to repeat an answer if they were muffled or the phone rang. I remember reading somewhere that some NPR reporters would ask a question over and over again to get the sound bite they were after.

    Ambient audio is a different story. If an audio interview is the portrait, ambient is documentary storytelling image.

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