AJ Daulerio and the ethics of online video

[Update: here’s the WITNESS report I talk about below, Cameras Everywhere]

I read, via The Browser, a GQ profile of AJ Daulerio, editor of Deadspin, sports outpost of Gawker.  Here’s an interesting section I didn’t expect to see, relating to the ethics of raw video:

Perhaps Daulerio’s darkest moment came last spring, when he posted a video of an obviously drunk college girl having sex in a bathroom stall at a sports bar in Bloomington, Indiana. At the time, he was thinking of it as part of a series on fans having sex in bathrooms. (In the fall of 2009, he’d posted a clip of a couple getting it on in a stall at the new Cowboys Stadium.) On May 11, a few days after the video went up, Daulerio received an e-mail from a woman imploring him to take it down. “I know the people in it and it is extreemly [sic] hurtful. please, this is completely unfair,” she wrote. In separate responses, both Daulerio and Darbyshire, the Gawker lawyer, refused to comply. “Best advice I can give you right now: do not make a big deal out of this because, as you can tell, the footage is blurry and you are not identified by name,” Daulerio wrote, assuming the e-mailer was the girl herself.

For the rest of the afternoon, Daulerio and the woman traded five e-mails. Finally, before handing the matter off to Darbyshire, Daulerio wrote, “It’s not getting taken down. I’ve said that. And it’s not a very serious matter. It is a dumb mistake you (or whomever) made while drunk in college. Happens to the best of us.”

The next day, though, he and Darbyshire decided that removing the video was “the best course of action,” Darbyshire says. But by then it had migrated to other sites. And a couple of days after that, Daulerio received a panicked call from the girl’s father. “He had this basic breakdown on the phone,” Daulerio recalled. “The guy is like, ‘You gotta understand, I’ve just been dealing with watching my daughter get fucked in a pile of piss for the past two days.’ “

Daulerio now says he wishes he hadn’t run the video. “It wasn’t funny,” he says. “It was possibly rape. I was trying to kind of put it in that same category [as the Dallas video]. I didn’t really look at the thing close enough to realize there’s maybe something a little more sinister going on here and a little more disturbing.”

As Daulerio himself notes, where it’s not possible to establish that an act witnessed involves consent, and indeed, may involve a sexual violation, a potential crime, there’s a special onus on the publisher not to propagate the video for titillation or humour, especially when videos can circulate so freely and easily.  But where are the written, editorial guidelines to help editors like Daulerio to make better decisions about what they should or shouldn’t publish when it comes user-contributed video raising these kinds of ethical questions, whatever kind of publisher they are?  There aren’t many in public, and those that there are don’t take much account of the ethical or human rights implications (because that’s what we’re talking about here).  When I worked on the Hub, we developed a very detailed set of internal editorial guidelines for dealing with raw video related specifically to human rights (here’s a very condensed public version – if I am permitted to share the full guidelines, I will do so in an update) – and we tested a lot of the content we received or saw against these guidelines.  Trying to make these kinds of editorial decisions is not easy, and we tried our best to explain many decisions in public, to help others facing similar decisions.  On occasion we found the guidelines either too specific, or too vague – sometimes our decisions contradicted the guidelines, because we were exercising judgement rather than applying hard-and-fast rules – but the key thing was that, because we were dealing with a new medium, with new kinds of content emerging all the time that challenged categories and boundaries, we needed some kind of framework to help situate us.

Part of the trouble is that we’re yet to see a genuinely balanced or informative widespread public debate about what constitutes ethical sharing, and ethical publishing of this kind of content.  The debate such as it is tends to resolve primarily into fears about loss of privacy, security, consent and/or dignity (including many in the human rights community), fears about intermediary liability (holding the platforms that receive and host UGC without reviewing it responsible for the content of the videos – not a popular position, but a perennial worry in terms of regulation), and proclamations that this is the new reality, and we’d all best toughen up (as Daulerio initially counsels the emailer in the above quote).   These debates need to move beyond hand-wringing, scare-mongering, and snark-flinging, in order to become a more productive and nuanced contribution to our evolving understanding of privacy, safety and security, and, ultimately, what we mean by transparency.  Seeing nuanced and genuine discussions about editorial decisions like these more widely in journalistic settings may help enrich those debates.  Let me know below if you’ve seen or published any.

As part of my continuing work with WITNESS, I’ve been working on a policy advocacy initiative called Cameras Everywhere (read my old friend and colleague Sam Gregory’s post introducing the work).  The work we’re doing looks in part at the emerging ethics of the online/mobile video environment – more on this soon.  We’ll make sure AJ gets the updates…


One response to “AJ Daulerio and the ethics of online video”

  1. Gawker staffers publicly call out bosses for refusing to deal with vile anonymous trolls | PandoDaily Avatar
    Gawker staffers publicly call out bosses for refusing to deal with vile anonymous trolls | PandoDaily

    […] for allowing bullying, while ignoring it at their own company. The truth is Gawker has played as a much of a role as anyone in encouraging the Internet’s cruel, bullying culture, and now the company’s own staff […]

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