The following chapter appeared in Power, Process and Participation: Tools for Change, an edited volume, published by Intermediate Technology Publications in 1995.

Media Ethics: No Magic Answers

by Renuka Bery

Ethical issues abound when introducing something into a society for the first time. Technology is not neutral; it brings complexities and raises numerous ethical questions which defy past experience and present new challenges. This chapter raises some of the questions and issues I have encountered in my experiences with and knowledge of social change organizations in the South using communication tools. The discussion here is far from exhaustive. There are no magic bullets. Ethics are extremely subjective and one can fairly ask, "Who is qualified to oversee them?" Finding solutions to ethical dilemmas depends on the situation, the cultural context and the participants involved.

Participatory Communication

Many terms are used to discuss strategies for participation in communication at the local level. Terms such as "community media," "process video," "alternative communication," to name a few, might be defined differently from one group to another. In my work at Communication for Change, a not-for-profit video training organization based in New York, we define participatory communication as a process which allows people to speak for themselves, about themselves and about their issues. Community members who would otherwise have limited access to media, can control the tools, not outsiders who mediate information and representation. Individuals, organizations and communities learn to use media, in particular video, rather than be used by media. This process is an exchange among individuals that values each person's perspective and voice. Community members produce tapes to meet their own needs, but the process continues long after a tape is completed. Playback sessions, at which members of the community gather to watch and discuss tapes, are critical to participatory video. Facilitators engage viewers in discussions about the tapes they have just seen. Through these exchanges participants can relate what they have seen and heard to their own experiences and lives.

Who has access and control?

The role of participatory video or media in a community must be considered carefully. Some ethical issues related to communication technology seem evident. What will it mean to introduce this technology into the community? What is its purpose? Will this technology introduce a new system of values? Who will control these new tools?

When introducing costly electronic technologies into economically disadvantaged societies, the issue of appropriateness is often raised. Should a community have a video camera or computer access in an area where there is no potable water or where people in the community are starving? This is a valid question that needs to be asked. But who should answer it?

If video is being introduced to raise awareness about health and hygiene issues, maybe it is a tool that can reach a wide range of people, some of whom might not be literate. If it is being used to document program activities, however, a written report may be more effective. If it is used to record a marriage ceremony, there may be a local entrepreneur who should be contracted instead. If an organization wishes to document the marriage ceremony because it is a rarely performed ritual and they wish to preserve cultural traditions, perhaps video is the most appropriate medium.

A village in Mali asked a group of literacy teachers trained in video to make a tape about sanitation and hygiene. One year later, a cholera epidemic swept the region but the villages that had seen the tape did not suffer as many casualties as other villages. They felt that the hygiene practices they had learned from the tape had prevented the cholera from spreading. This outcome could not have been predicted in advance.

Each organization or individual should assess carefully which medium is best for the task. The question remains, who decides what is an appropriate medium? It would seem that in a participatory environment, the organization or community involved should decide. When members of a community work together to define their goals and priorities, they are vested in the outcomes. Determining how to fulfill these goals is the next step. Usually there are numerous ways to achieve them. If video is considered a viable tool, the community involved must carefully assess how video would assist them and whether it is the most suitable medium.

These are suggestions for questions to ask when considering media options for communication:

  • What is the best medium to communicate the message?
  • Is the chosen style (drama, interview, group meeting, lecture, music, etc) the best way to communicate this message?
  • How much time will it take to produce?
  • Are there resources and time available to do it?
  • Can something else be produced more efficiently with fewer resources and still be as effective?
  • What are the advantages/disadvantages of choosing one way or another?
  • What are the long-term implications of the choices?

Many people believe that access to information and technology is the key to empowerment. For example, with computers to open doors to the world's vast information data banks, people's lives can change dramatically. But one should also ask whether, in fact, just having access does lead to changes in knowledge or attitudes. While communication and access to technology can strengthen individuals and communities, the existing power bases will not crumble just because more people in the South can log on. The structure of control might shift as more people gain access, but ownership will remain in the hands of a few at the top.

Who controls the tools is a critical element in the access debate. It determines the perspective, style and content of any message that is created. Putting communication technologies directly in the hands of people at the grass roots, especially women, challenges existing power structures. But like all tools, media are as powerful as the people who use them. A village communicator will construct a message about economic self-sufficiency very differently from someone from outside the community. In turn, the slant would again be different if a foreigner went into that community and told the story.

Allocating resources

An organization considering any communication technology as a tool to strengthen its work should determine whether they have the organizational resources necessary to accommodate the desired medium. Most media cannot be made in isolation. It takes time, training, commitment and lots of practice to gain the proper skills. A key consideration when introducing media activities is obtaining equipment and training simultaneously. Although anyone can learn to operate equipment, telling a convincing story and facilitating discussions after playbacks is equally important and more difficult to master. Thus training is important. In addition, training without regular access to equipment can be a trap as well. Learning a new skill is a powerful experience which, if not nurtured and supported, will be forgotten. Moreover, the strength and confidence people gained by learning to voice their issues will be undermined.

It is very easy for outsiders to enter a community and tell its members what is needed. These outsiders are often accorded elevated status. They are the experts; they know the "right" way. This acknowledgement of experience can be a trap, especially for trainers using participatory methodologies. It is a top-down, often patronizing approach which clearly suppresses or distorts participation. The presence of outsider advisors poses a number of challenging questions: Should outsiders be invited to share their ideas and knowledge at all? Should people from outside the culture introduce non-traditional communication methods which are infused with ideas and values that are new and perhaps not compatible with the existing social mores? Should any communication technology be introduced across cultures? If the world is moving toward instantaneous communication and globalization, should not everyone have the option to join?


There is constant tension in participatory video groups about the issue of sustainability. Making video requires an upfront investment in equipment, training and tape supply. While some costs are one-time and finite, others such as tape stock, are ongoing. In addition, equipment can break, so repair and/or replacement costs need to be factored into the larger sustainability picture. Funding is often available for startup and training, but what happens after the initial funding has finished? If an organization has successfully integrated video activities into its core program, tape and repairs will be funded through the general or program budgets. If video remains a separate entity, specific funds need to be raised to continue supporting the video activities. To address the issue of long term sustainability, organizations often contemplate making tapes about popular issues to sell, or hiring out their production services to clients. Working for clients is very different from working as a participatory team. The introduction of money into the production equation changes a producer's relationship with the work. The decision to produce for money raises a new set of ethical questions to address:

  • Can the organizational goals for video be met if the video teams hire out their services?
  • If tapes are made for sale, will the issues focused on preempt organizational priorities?
  • Does the video unit have enough resources to produce for clients?
  • Is the compensation (financial or otherwise) enough to justify the time and resources spent on the production?
  • Who will have control over content, direction and product? Is control important?

The issue of professionalization extends beyond production values to organizational dynamics. Careful consideration should be given to questions such as, "What are the potential consequences (positive and negative) in professionalizing a participatory video producer or team? How will the relationships change within and outside the organization? Will the organization value a professional team differently by the organization than a participatory team? If so, how and with what effects?


Ownership is clear when producing for hire; the client pays for a production and owns the rights. If ownership is not specified it can be questioned when a production gains recognition and status. Although these issues may seem improbable, they can occur unexpectedly. A producer in a village in Bangladesh made a tape about her neighbor. The production is a strong and honest interview with a woman who had been abandoned by her husband when she was not able to pay him more dowry. She survived many hardships, eventually became financially solvent and educated her daughter despite the odds against her This tape powerfully illustrates the injustices of the dowry system as well as an individual woman's strength in overcoming adverse situations. It has been shown and discussed in villages all over Bangladesh.

This tape was subtitled in English to make the content and the role of participatory video more accessible to outside audiences and funders. As a result, this tape was submitted to an international Women in Video competition; it was one of eight winning tapes from 76 submissions from 23 countries. The prize was either cash or a trip to Britain to receive the award.

The prize introduced the participatory video teams to issues of ownership for the first time. The organization arranged a celebration in Dhaka to honor and recognize the value of participatory video to the organization and the communities. In addition, the producer attended an awards ceremony in New Delhi for the Asian winners. But she thought she should have gone to Britain. To whom did the prize belong? The organization? The production team? The producer? The interviewee? Each thought he or she should benefit from this prize. The video teams asked why the producer was singled out when it was a team effort--and all the teams were making interesting tapes. The interviewee accused the organization of profiting from her story. Other video team members subsequently reported that some people were reluctant to speak on camera because they did not want their story exploited, or because they wanted payment.

Another issue of ownership relates to the rights of footage. Some organizations in the North have given Southern organizations communication equipment in exchange for footage. What does an organization do if offered video equipment in exchange for raw footage documenting human rights or environmental abuses without any control or knowledge over how it will be used? Does an image taken out of its larger context change its meaning? To answer that, one needs only to think of a sound bite that is separated from a conversation. There are questions both donor and recipient organizations need to consider and explore:

  • Will this technology assist the community in meeting its goals?
  • Does the recipient organization need more than the equipment? If so, what other technical support is necessary and how will it be secured?
  • Why does this donor want these images? How will the images be used?
  • Will the footage taken out of context add to the stereotypes or negative images that most Northerners see of the South or can the organizations ensure that positive examples of life, culture and development get presented?
  • If people around the world see these images, do they have a right to interfere in the issues? Would the recipient organization want them to? How? Why?

With video, as with other forms of media, respecting copyright is important. It is very tempting to duplicate a tape without permission rather than to buy it; but it is not ethical. Every organization needs to find ways to maintain its video activities and users and producers need to support each other's efforts. Some organizations try to spread social change ideas and messages and encourage others to copy their materials. Yet if an organization wishes to market tapes to support its video activities, unauthorized duplication of these tapes would undermine that organization's sustainability.

Propaganda or information?

Propaganda is the spread of particular ideas to further a cause. It has evolved to have a negative connotation. But is propaganda necessarily bad? We must realize that there is no such thing as objectivity. Technology is not neutral and neither is communication. Everyone is influenced by his or her background, knowledge, experiences, context and frame of reference. Everyone has a bias--a unique point of view. A video producer can try to make a balanced program showing many different opinions, but he or she still has an opinion to convey.

Information is powerful. The person sending the information determines the way the information is communicated. The communicator controls the message, the tone, the perspective, the style and the mode of communication according to the audience he or she wishes to reach. A video program on teenage sexuality for government officials would look different from a program for the teenagers themselves. Who is communicating to whom is important in determining how the message will be framed. For example, a radio program to encourage rural women to become more involved in family planning decisions might be most effective as a serial drama rather than as an academic program of statistical facts gathered from extensive research findings.

A program about the successes of a woman who joined an organization, learned to save money and became economically solvent might influence viewers to join the organization. Is this propaganda, as one villager accused? Would showing this tape to villagers at night after they returned from a full day working in the fields be considered coercive? Is this any different from television networks deciding which programs to air during prime time and giving the advertising slots to those who pay the most? Who judges whether propaganda is good or bad?

Seeing is believing--or is it?

Participatory video producers in Bangladesh, excited about the power of video in their communities, commented that, "Seeing is believing," and, "Video cannot be bribed." Their enthusiasm was infectious; their statements were, at once, distressing and encouraging. Video had been successfully introduced into a large Bangladeshi NGO. They had used it, decentralized it and redefined participatory video to fit their needs. Yet these statements illustrated both a naivete and a true understanding of video's power as a medium of communication. Video is not objective; a producer constructs a production to communicate a specific look and feel as well as a certain perspective.

While the communicator controls the way the information is conveyed, the person receiving the information has a responsibility to be aware of who is communicating and why. This is critical thinking. The issue of critical viewing is important when introducing video technology into a community. Video is created to communicate what the producer wishes. Viewers need to learn that although "seeing" is powerful, one should not automatically "believe."

Learning to view media with a critical eye is an important skill. When people develop critical skills they begin to understand where information comes from and why. It is particularly important as one learns more about media production. Critical viewing or listening is learning to ask questions about what one is seeing or hearing. Communicators create messages so the viewer will believe them.

On the other hand, video can be like a mirror. Another village producer remarked that each time someone tells a story, it is recounted in a different way. However, on video, the story and facts can be preserved. So, for example, a government official making promises on video could be held to those promises later.

Watching video or listening to the radio can be a passive experience in which the audience becomes a vessel to be filled with information. Communication for Change believes it is important to animate the process, to engage the viewers in the issues they see on the screen and to encourage them to explore these issues as they relate to their own lives. By thinking actively and discussing the issues they see, people learn to be critical viewers.

Some questions critical viewers should ask themselves while receiving any media:

  1. Who is communicating?
  2. What message is being communicated?
  3. For whom is the message?
  4. Why is the message being communicated?
  5. Whose values are presented? Are they the same as mine?

As people develop critical viewing skills, more sophisticated questions can be explored. Questions about how messages are constructed, style, perspective, image choice and sequence should all be considered. Is one particular sequence of images more powerful than a different sequence? Why? How does the producer use the viewers's emotional response to engage them? Is it manipulative? Is it ethical?


Consent is important. Producers must be honest about the goals for their productions. If people do not wish to appear in a production, they should not be coerced, tricked or bribed into being on the tape--even if they have important information to share. Otherwise the producer's integrity (and consequently the organization's) will most likely be questioned. Obtaining consent from people appearing in a production is a critical issue in the United States. If any chance exists for a production to be broadcast, shown publicly or sold, producers obtain written consent from the people appearing in their production and the rights to use footage or music they do not own. In other parts of the world the protocol for obtaining permission to include someone in a production is not so clear.

Another issue which arises is payment for telling one's story. Perhaps someone should be paid for his or her time; however, paying for a story seems suspect because if economic gain is the motive, a convincing storyteller could easily invent a more dramatic story. It is important in video to be clear about what is real and what is fabricated.

Video and audio tape do not have to be developed. This immediacy makes it possible to replay the tape to the production participants immediately. A playback can be a way of acknowledging people's participation and the time they have taken to be involved, especially when the producer explains how the tape will be used and encourages them to give feedback.

Bulu, a village woman in Bangladesh made a tape about her neighbor, Nasima, a victim of domestic violence who had since been abandoned by her husband. Bulu risked the discomfort and crowd control problems to make the production in Nasima's village rather than in the quiet environs of the organization's facility. She wanted Nasima's husband to find out about the tape so he would be worried. In playing back the tape to Nasima and her neighbors, she asked for their comments and their permission to show the tape to other women as a way of encouraging them to seek legal aid counselling.


Participatory media will evolve and be used differently in every organization. Everyone has a voice and the right to be heard. But no set prescriptions exist for instituting media activities. In some organizations, the media unit is centralized and services many different programs. In other groups, media are decentralized and have developed to serve the local needs of its constituency. Some use video as a cultural preservation tool, others for self-expression and empowerment. Still other organizations have multiple goals--providing information about the organization to outsiders while involving media in internal training, organizing and documentation activities.

At the Self-Employed Women's Association in India, video is an organizing tool. In China after the massacre in Tiananmen Square, fax machines were used to tell uncensored stories to the rest of the world. Media are used to document activities and events, to negotiate with policy makers, to advocate for change or to communicate to large constituencies. They have been widely incorporated in training environments and as icebreakers to start dialogues about difficult topics.

A leprosy clinic in India used an entertainment film to draw crowds in several slum areas. Once a group had gathered, clinic volunteers showed a film about leprosy. After the screening, the presenters led a discussion about the disease to raise awareness and to encourage people with symptoms to visit the clinic. Is this presentation technique ethical? In some cultural environments, this strategy might be considered coercive and unethical. In other environments, the same strategies might be vital to motivate change in a community.

Ethical issues cannot be judged because each cultural context draws on its own set of relationships and traditions. However, the most burning questions of all remain: who raises the ethical questions in the first place? Then, once these questions have surfaced, who possesses the authority or right to answer them? Ethics require open, questioning minds willing to explore the concerns expressed. But whose minds? And who decides?  

Biographical Information

Renuka Bery was a project director and development video trainer with Communication for Change for five years. She worked on family planning and adolescent health issues with Columbia University in New York and the Association for Reproductive and Family Health in Ibadan, Nigeria while getting a master's degree in public health. Renuka Bery has also consulted the PBS series "Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego?", advised Apple Computer's Multimedia Lab on the Visual Almanac, developed international networks at Internews and assisted the introduction of video teleconferencing at Kaiser Permanente in Oakland, CA. She has lived, worked and traveled extensively in Asia, Africa, Europe and the United States.