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The Ethics of Documentary Production in a Pandemic

By Carrie Lozano

As a graduate student at U.C. Berkeley’s Graduate School of Journalism, I was required to take a class on law and ethics (students still are). As a student, I grumbled about reading case law and decades-old ethical case studies when I’d much rather be running around with a crew and a camera. But when I found myself in a newsroom setting, I immediately realized that it was potentially the most consequential class I had taken.

Whether or not we are conscious of it, the work we do as journalists and filmmakers is laden with ethical decisions. That common ground is part of the DNA of the IDA Enterprise Documentary Fund, and is fertile territory for shared learning. Every day, I’m privileged to straddle both worlds. My time is literally divided between serving the independent documentary storytelling community and working with students and reporters at Berkeley’s Graduate School of Journalism. With the arrival of the novel coronavirus, I find myself weighing ethics daily as I do something I have never done before: lead a team of reporters to produce breaking news on the virus through a unique partnership between the j-school’s Investigative Reporting Program and The New York Times

The act of students working this anxiety-provoking, complex and fast-moving story is a striking reminder of the ethical dilemmas nonfiction storytellers encounter: How do you approach a grieving spouse to confirm that his wife of 25 years was the first identified COVID death in the U.S.? How do you engage with a source who you know is in significant physical pain—so much so, that it hurts to turn off a light switch? How do you tell the story of medical staff whose jobs might be on the line if they go on the record about the unsafe, dire circumstances in their hospitals? These are real scenarios our students have encountered, and they are the tip of the iceberg.

But the thing that has caused me to toss and turn at night—the most fraught internal debate I’ve had in a long time—is a question that has been posed to me and many of my IDA colleagues: Can independent filmmakers safely produce in the field right now? 

Some have asked IDA to compile best practices for field producing, others have asked if there are legal ramifications for breaking shelter-in-place ordinances to film, while others want to know what insurance companies will cover and under what circumstances. These are legitimate questions, for sure, as field production is the very core, the actual building block, of what most of us do. As we debated this question at IDA, and as I labored over every salient point I could think of in my own head, we decided collectively that the best we could do is to lay out, as clearly as possible, the life-and-death ethical and moral dilemma that field production currently poses. 

To do that, let’s start with what COVID-19 is not. 

COVID-19 is not a war. War zones have a long-standing tradition of admittedly fallible, but generally effective, best practices for field reporting and producing. Beyond that, the dangers presented in a war zone don’t spread. As Simon Kilmurry said to me one day, “It's not like a bullet hits you in a war zone, then ricochets home and hits your spouse, then spreads to the grocery store clerk, followed by her high-risk mother.”

COVID-19 is not 9/11. Beyond the horror and loss of the initial attack, which took nearly 3,000 lives, and exposed first responders, journalists and residents to long-term health risks, reporting on 9/11 and its decades-long reverberations has mostly presented storytellers with high-stakes, yet calculated, risks, largely impacting things like livelihoods, personal freedoms and reputations. Dangerous, yes. Deadly? Not inherently. 

COVID-19 is not cholera or ebola. Reporters and filmmakers take great risks to cover those deadly epidemics when they crop up, but there are key differences between those illnesses and the novel coronavirus. Careful hygiene can prevent exposure to cholera, and ebola is only transmitted by individuals with active symptoms. One might think that since those epidemics were heavily documented, this can be too. But to quote a filmmaker I spoke with recently, making that parallel involves a certain amount of “magical thinking.” If you really want to delve into the potential psychological games we play when we want to justify risky behavior, Amy Halpin recommended this fascinating article on avalanche training.

I fear that delusion is all around us and possibly infectious too, as cities and states prematurely reopen for business. And I hope that our field doesn’t fall into the same trap, given what we do  know about COVID-19. 

COVID-19 is a highly contagious, communicable and potentially deadly virus that can be transmitted through asymptomatic individuals. While scientists and doctors have identified some clear high-risk groups, there is growing evidence that the virus inexplicably kills young, healthy people too. It is impossible to identify everyone who is a carrier, and equally impossible to know who might be susceptible to its most ravaging effects and ultimately death. If you conduct field production right now, you are making an ethical, not scientific, decision to take risks with your crew and all the individuals you come into contact with in the process, regardless of the precautions you take. And the exposure doesn’t end when production ends, but lasts for at least the next 14 days. That’s the nature of exponential spread. As I write this, there is no scientific understanding, no testing capacity, nor treatment, to ensure that you will not contract or spread a potentially deadly disease. 

Some will point out that news organizations are deploying crews and reporters, and will ask why we can’t simply share their safety practices so that indies can protect themselves using PPE and social distancing. 

While some news organizations are allowing limited field production, some are not. Regardless, independent filmmakers do not work under the same circumstances. I work on both sides of the fence, and I want to emphasize that there is a vast distinction between properly resourced and functioning newsrooms and what I know firsthand of independent film production. That very disparity is what inspired the creation of the IDA Enterprise Documentary Fund. 

News organizations, in sending out their staff, take on the liability for their reporters’ health and safety. In addition to providing basic protections, there is generally a chain of approvals for high-risk field reporting, perhaps an assessment via a risk management firm with access to the best available expertise and information. In addition, reporting staff are likely insured, both with health insurance and life insurance. Depending on the scenario, additional insurance policies and riders might be available. The absolute worst thing for a newsroom is to lose or maim one of its own. It happens, but a lot can and should be brought to bear to make sure it doesn’t. 

Reporters also tend to spend much less time with sources in the field than documentary filmmakers, often retrieving material in minutes instead of hours, days, weeks or more. Studies are showing that the more time spent with a coronavirus-infected individual, the higher the potential for contracting the illness. 

All this is to explain why IDA cannot responsibly advise people about production at this time. There are simply too many variables to take into account, including issues specific to different regions and to each production, not to mention the unknown vulnerabilities of documentary participants, many of whom are already the most at-risk among us. Even state, county and city regulations vary widely in their shelter-in-place orders and are mostly centered on “newsgathering” as an essential service. Many productions wouldn’t rise to the level of the intended guidelines. In the fog, what’s clear is that there is not a one-size-fits-all recommendation that we can make. 

As the news and our understanding of COVID-19 unfold daily, our perspective on this issue will change and evolve as well. When it does, we’ll do our best to provide vetted information in a timely, thoughtful and responsible manner with your health and safety as our top priority. That is the ethical thing to do. 


Carrie Lozano is director of the IDA Enterprise Documentary Fund and a lecturer at UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism.