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Protecting sources in the age of video journalism

Protecting sources in the age of video journalism

The broadly built man whom Scott Pelley interviewed on CBS’ 60 Minutes last Sunday night was called Mark Owen. He had heavy black eyebrows, deep brown eyes, and a gravelly voice.

Only, no such man exists.

In fact, the man to whom Pelley devoted an entire prime time hour was part of the elite squad of U.S. navy SEALs that raided a compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan last May, and assassinated Osama bin Laden. Mark Owen is his pen name, and his appearance and voice were modified as part of an elaborate disguise, courtesy of CBS.

The protection of sources is considered a basic condition for press freedom. For a print journalist, this can be as simple as replacing one’s real name with a descriptive phrase (“a source close to the President”) or pseudonym (“Deep Throat”). For broadcast journalists, though, it is a trickier business.

The New York Times characterized the real "Owen" (whose "outed" real name it also published) as gutsy and transgressive. Gutsy, presumably, for having participated in 13 consecutive combat deployments with the SEALs; transgressive because he may have violated confidentiality agreements with the U.S. government by writing a book, No Easy Day, about the Abbottabad attack. The book went on sale early this month, to the displeasure of U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta.

“Owen” agreed to be interviewed on Sunday’s show – which garnered the biggest not-football-related television audience of the week in the United States, with more than 12.3 million viewers (up 52 percent front he same weekend last year) – on the condition that his physical anonymity would be preserved on camera.

In an Overtime episode describing the dissimulation process that ensued (embedded below), 60 Minutes Producer Henry Schuster describes “Owen’s” reasons for wishing to mask his face and voice as being two-fold: to “underscore the SEAL ethos of teamwork,” and to avoid becoming the target of a retaliatory attack by Al Qaeda operatives or sympathisers, which Schuster called a "genuine fear."

Extreme though this case may be, the need to assure on-camera anonymity is a challenge that more and more journalists will soon face. Newspaper and magazine websites are now vibrating with video content; The Wall Street Journal, to name one example, is urging hundreds of its reporters to file short clips. With the barrier between print and television breaking down, many reporters who are used to wielding only the pen are learning to also wield the record button, and those of them wishing to cover sensitive topics may wish to borrow tricks from television's tickle trunk.

As one response to this challenge, YouTube released a face-blurring tool this summer, which Storyful founder Mark Little applauded as a method for protecting citizen journalists who “put a lot on the line to get their message out.” However, in situations where the source is being interviewed on camera and eye-contact is imperative, a blurred face does not suffice. The following Overtime episode describes the disguises that 60 Minutes has come up with over the years, from mustaches and glasses to the expert work of Hollywood make-up artists.

Source: CBS, Media Bistro, The New York Times, Slate


Emma Knight


2012-09-12 10:51

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