7 Chapter 7: The Ethics of 360 Video

New technologies will always introduce new ethical challenges and dilemmas to consider. In this chapter, we’ll address some of the potential issues you may have to address as a 360 storyteller.

 

Ethical questions

So, as you can probably tell from following this guidebook, we’re pretty excited about what one can accomplish creatively with 360 video technology. But it’s clear that as more news organizations, media producers, academics, marketing companies and even hobbyists of all stripes get out in the world shooting 360 video, there are numerous questions and concerns around this space. If you’re shooting 360 video in public, are you more likely to invade someone’s privacy? We know that viewing immersive video on a headset can lead to deeper feelings of empathy, but can this be a problematic experience for some? In this chapter, we’ll identify some of these potential issues and dilemmas and offer suggestions on how to address them, so that you can create 360 content with a more fulsome understanding of what the consequences could be.

 

Ethical question #1: What are the guidelines regarding shooting 360 video in public?

An important question and one that may give you pause right off the bat. Let’s say that you’ve got your 360 camera and you’re shooting outside of a public building when someone passing by notices your camera, and then demands that you delete the footage because they didn’t consent to be in your shot. What do you do?

It goes without saying that the laws around capturing images or video in public depend heavily on where you are and different jurisdictions have different levels of permissibility. We suggest that, as a starting point, 360 shooters follow the same guidelines that people adhere to if they were taking photos and videos with, say, your smartphone camera or a DSLR in a public setting. We won’t go over every possible convention (and once again, this may differ depending on where you live), but here are some consistent principles:

  • There is no law (at least in Canada) that prevents a member of the public from shooting video or taking photographs in a public place
  • You are permitted to take photos and videos of people in public places, including children and police officers and can publish this content without their consent, although this can also be dependent on jurisdiction. Quebec, for example, has much more restrictive privacy laws than other provinces. Double check your local guidelines.
  • Having stated this, there are some instances where filming a public location is legally prohibited due to security or sensitivity concerns, such as military bases and inside courthouses. Do a little research into what may or may not be permitted in locations like these
  • To prevent someone from taking videos or videos in a public place is actually an infringement of that person’s rights as protected by the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, regardless of whether you’re working as a journalist or there in the capacity of a private citizen. For the most part, a security guard or police officer or member of the public cannot prevent you from shooting video at a public place, unless you are clearly obstructing their duties. Additionally, a police officer is not permitted to make you delete your footage or show you what you’ve captured
  • If you happen to be shooting on private property (i.e. owned by an individual or company), you should comply with a police officer’s or owner’s request for you to move off the site or to public property (i.e. the street). But once you’re on public property again, you can resume shooting
  • You’re allowed to shoot on public property provided that you’re not doing something illegal while doing so (i.e. jaywalking or breaking into facility)
  • If you’re using a ton of gear or have positioned your equipment in a manner that is clearly obstructing members of the public of getting around, you may be asked to move. This is why, whenever possible, you should minimize the amount of your need to bring and plan your shoot so you’ll be minimally disruptive as possible
  • Shooting inside a public location (i.e. a mall, a subway station) is generally permissible, however, remember that members of the public have the legal right to retain a reasonable amount of privacy. Shots of people lining up to enter a store or moving onto a train are generally fine, but leave the camera out of areas where people expect privacy (i.e. bathrooms, change rooms, hospital rooms).

Now, all of this also presupposes that what you’re shooting is for non-commercial purposes. If you have been contracted to shoot a wedding or promotional material for a company or a larger-scale film production, you’ll likely need to obtain a permit to shoot in public locations. It’s usually easy to find these applications by searching your local city website. In some cases, there will be a permit fee involved and you would be wise to keep a copy of your authorized permit on you during the shoot.

If you’ve been taking photos and videos on the street as a hobby or are a professional, you’ll have some familiarity with these rules. But 360 video may require special considerations, given how much more detail you capture and how relatively new this technology is as it relates to the public’s comfort level and concerns about surveillance.

When someone takes a selfie or is using a video camera on a tripod in public, there are deliberate actions involved that is visible to people passing by. They’re accustomed to seeing us adjust the lenses and positioning the tripod and they know that some filming will be happening. However, a small 360 camera sitting inconspicuously on a park bench or mailbox could easily go undetected while gathering hours of footage in all directions. People that may have intentionally avoided being in the frame of a video camera had they the chance may be unaware they’re being recorded. The following are some suggestions for shooting 360 video in public:

 

Consider making it more obvious that you’re filming a 360 video 

    • The nature of 360 video endeavours us to try to blend in as much as possible, but shooting video in public spaces that could be part of a sensitive topic may warrant more of your considerations about respecting people’s privacy or at least making them aware of your actions. There may not be anything ostensibly sensitive about filming a walk through a city neighbourhood, but what if you were filming a documentary about poverty and much of your footage was to include shots of low-income housing and the people who live there? Shooting in locations where marginalized communities and more vulnerable populations have made their residential and social hubs (i.e. Gay villages, homeless shelters, ethnic neighbourhoods) should warrant more consideration, particularly given the history of media misrepresentation many groups have faced. We always encourage you to use monopod or selfie stick when shooting 360 video to maximize stabilization, but this also helps identify your camera in public and that a photo or video is being taken. If people see this and wish to avoid being in your shot, they’ll have more of an opportunity to avoid being filmed. Some filmmakers and videographers may post a small sign or two in the vicinity of the scene to make it more obvious and known that a video shoot is taking place. Details like tripods and signs can also be removed or obscured in post-production (if this is what you decide to do).

 

Be prepared to explain what you’re doing

    • We advise transparency and to be honest about what you’re filming. People may be concerned about how the footage will be used, but often, people are just curious about the camera and what it does. Having an open conversation about the device and what you intend to do with the content will help assuage any concerns they are being spied on.

Be particularly considerate with people in close proximity

    • If there is a subject or group of people that will occupy much of the frame and be quite prevalent and clearly identifiable in your video, consider approaching them to inform them what you’re filming, as they may not recognize you’re using a 360 camera and believe you’re just shooting the opposite side. This is especially if they will be very clearly identifiable in your footage.

Always check your footage carefully before publishing it

    • While you may have intended to capture a few specific details in your scene, you may have inadvertently captured someone at a particularly vulnerable or sensitive moment. Perhaps you’re thinking you’re getting a great shot of an art installation in a downtown square, but you’ve inadvertently captured someone changing their clothes by the hotel window next door. Ultimately, if the moment is relevant to your story and there is no legal requirement to get rid of it, you may decide to include it in your final cut. But it is important for you to be aware of what’s going on in your footage so you can make that decision.

 

Ethical question#2: What are the rules regarding shooting 360 video of people where they’re clearly identifiable?

Shooting 360 video for “crowd” or general scenery is one thing, but what happens when certain individuals appear very prominently in your footage? This may be by design (i.e. they are a principal character in your story) or may be unintentional (i.e. a stranger sitting across from your principal character while you’re interviewing them a restaurant unaware anything was being filmed). In the case of documentarians and filmmakers, they tend to seek anybody who appears prominently in their video to sign a waiver or consent form, particularly if the end product is intended for broadcast or publication. This often also applies if children are to be featured prominently in your video, as guardian permission is an advisable thing to have in written form.

If you’re a professional videographer, you’re likely accustomed to seeking permissions. This waiver form basically allows the content producer to use this person’s image in their materials and relinquishes their right to legally contest their inclusion in the footage or what you with that material. What makes 360 an interesting challenge in this regard is because you’re capturing video in all directions simultaneously, you may inadvertently include people in your footage that end up being clearly identifiable and prominent. Context can matter too. Filming scenes from a summer street festival is likely fairly innocuous and you may be able to take a more relaxed approach to securing waivers from people beyond your principal characters. But what if you were directing a documentary about drug addiction and your principal character was taking you to a part of town that’s notorious for drug dealing? For stories involving more sensitive topics, we definitely suggest more consideration for having waivers of the subjects featured in your video, although at some point, it becomes impractical to chase down every person. If you’re unable to secure waivers for everyone that is clearly identifiable in your footage, other strategies can be used, such as blurring the person’s face. But we’ll echo our earlier recommendation of making it somewhat obvious you’re filming a 360 video and giving people the opportunity to move away from the camera. And ultimately, if you’re not sure you need someone to sign a waiver, you may wish to seek the opinion of a legal expert in broadcast matters.

 

Ethical question #3: Am I describing my video as “real life”?

Given the nature of 360 video as a more immersive experience, many kinds of 360 and virtual reality stories are framed and presented as accurately and authentically capturing real life scenes right as they’re unfolding. In reality, there is often a significant amount of manipulation and influence by the creator both technically and editorially that the audience may not realize has occurred. Consider, for example:

  • 360 videos aim to put the viewer in the middle of the action with no camera or camera operator in sight. But obviously people are involved in capturing the video. Are you hiding in plain view, perhaps pretending to be a wandering member of the public, or are you clearly identifiable and purposefully part of the scene, perhaps as a tour guide?
  • To shoot 360 videos well may require adjustments in the staging of the scene. These adjustments may range from minimal (i.e. lowering a window blind to improve lighting conditions) to more substantial (i.e. rearranging a room so that certain objects are more easily viewed). How much are you altering the physical environment of the scene?
  • Filming a subject performing an action may require having them re-do the action multiple times if they flub their performance or if you’re having difficulty obtaining the optimal camera position to clearly capture the action. If your video involves multiple takes or rehearsals, how “real life” is it?
  • 360 video may involve significant post-production. Are you removing things from the scene, such as scrubbing out traces of the camera tripod to create a more immersive feeling? Are you adding things to the scene, like computer-generated elements to spice up the scene (i.e. the CG flames in the BBC fire video we discussed earlier) or 3D objects to add more interactivity? How much of what people are seeing has been tinkered with editing?

These are just a few of the questions that 360 content creators grapple with. The answers depend a lot on the type of work you’re doing and for whom. Journalists may be held to a higher standard of transparency and factual accuracy by themselves and the public, whereas filmmakers and marketing content creators have much more creative latitude to finesse the production in order to tell the story they’re aiming to tell.

If you are a journalist, and you’re finding it challenging to understand where the line is, veteran investigative reporter and documentary director Robert Osborne has some advice. “The moment your influence starts to skew the image in some way, if it starts to change the editorial content, that’s pushing it too far in some way in my opinion. That’s when you’re creating reality, not capturing it.” With this is mind, Osborne says he’s ethically comfortable to move some garbage out of the way or tidy up a little so that the shot will look less cluttered and more focused on the story. He’ll direct his subjects a little if they need to pause or reset the camera to capture a scene clearly. But adding objects or props to the space where they were not before or having subjects behave in ways is where he gets uncomfortable because doing so is purposefully skewing the reality.

 

Ethical question #4: Headsets and VR can be physically uncomfortable for people

Two more ethical issues we’d like to explore relate to the use of headsets and experiencing virtual reality. As this is an introductory guidebook on 360 video and only touches upon virtual reality, we won’t get too deep into the weeds with these questions, but it’s important to acknowledge that there can be intended consequences to this technology.

The use of headsets (as you’ll remember, by definition, to experience virtual reality requires the immersion of a headset) to watch these content can be problematic for people both physically and emotionally.

In terms of physical issues, many people find that watching 360 or VR content on a headset can lead to eye strain, nausea and headaches. Prolonged, uninterrupted use of headsets are not recommended, although the research is unclear whether there is a precise threshold people should be aware of. In general, people should take a break from the headset if they start experiencing discomfort. There are numerous physiological theories as to why this “virtual reality sickness” exists and what to do about it. The quality and stability of the visuals seems to have an effect, as content with lower frame rates, resolution and uneven lighting is more difficult to stomach. Latency issues (any delay between the movement of the user’s head with the corresponding change in visuals) can also induce motion sickness. VR designers have had some success in reducing these issues by developing more intuitive controls for VR experiences that help a person maintain their equilibrium. We expect more solutions in this area to come as VR technology and design continues to reach maturity. From a content creator perspective, you should be aware that what you’re filming may make people physically uncomfortable and reasonable considerations should be made in the filming and production of your content to minimize this. You may still want to use a sudden transition or a strobe light effect for that concert scene you shot, but always think about the person on the other end of this watching through a headset.

 

Ethical question #5: Is VR actually an empathy machine, and is that a good thing?

There is compelling research that suggests engaging with VR content can make people more empathetic, compared to other forms of communication. In 2017, researchers at Stanford University wanted to see whether people would become more empathetic about homelessness depending on the type of medium they were exposed, including VR. Some groups were asked to read narratives about homelessness while others played a two-dimensional scenario on a desktop computer. The group who an interactive VR simulation video about homelessness were more likely to “have enduring positive attitudes toward the homeless than people who did other tasks… the same people were also more likely to sign a petition in support of affordable housing.”

 

Fig. 1: The Stanford University Virtual Human Interaction Lab’s research into the epidemic of homelessness

 

These findings echo similar conclusions made by researchers at the Tow Center for Digital Journalism. The idea of VR being the ultimate “empathy machine” has been championed by filmmakers and VR documentary pioneers like Nonny de la Pena and Chris Milk. But is VR really the empathy machine some purport it to be? Some critics, such as Harvard human rights lecturer Sam Gregory, wonders if VR experiences are “confusing immersion for empathy.” Santa Clara University Professor Erick Ramirez argues that VR can encourage greater feelings of sympathy, this is different than true empathy. True empathy requires one to try to understand emotions and perspective of another individual. As VR users, however, we’re more like spectators at a scene, bringing our own experiences and awareness into the mix.

“The best we can do with VR is to see what it might be like for us to experience some forms of temporary racial discrimination or of becoming homeless; and even in these cases, we should be careful to distinguish between realistic and gamified experiences of homelessness and racism. For all its potential, VR can’t show us what it’s like to be someone else … VR is an important tool, and research shows that it can radically affect the way we think about the world. But we shouldn’t be so quick to assume that it endows us with true, first-person, empathetic understanding.”

Whether or not VR can encourage true empathy, most researchers do agree that the immersive headset experience can significantly influence our attitudes and opinions, perhaps much more so than other forms of media. Could VR help spread misinformation and galvanize anti-social behaviour? Could exposing people to distressing or disturbing VR content lead to actual traumas? And as VR is increasingly used for therapeutic and mental health purposes, we expect a host of new ethical dilemmas to emerge. The consequences of all this is yet to be fully apparent.

For now, we think it’s important for anyone interested in 360 video and VR to understand that it can be a very powerful medium psychologically. What you show to people and how you frame it can have a significant influence on their perspectives. We love the idea of giving people the chance to walk in someone else’s shoes, but we should duly consider the how and the why.

 

TL;DR:

  • While one is free to shoot 360 in public, be aware that passing citizens may have no idea they are being filmed and to check your footage over with care to not cause anyone unnecessary embarrassment.
  • 360/VR storytelling can be ethically challenging, particularly if you’re framing your content as “real-life” experience – be mindful of the ways you’re finessing or manipulating a scene or experience.
  • Be aware that your content could trigger negative feelings in someone, both physically and emotionally, and consider offering warnings or indications about what they may see in the video.

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