Field Notes: Ethical Guidelines for Using Eyewitness Video

Minimizing Harm While Exposing Abuse


Just because footage of abuse exists doesn’t mean it must be shared publicly, if doing so could potentially cause harm to the individuals filmed. You can choose to not show the footage, and instead provide your audience with a description of it. Alternatively, follow the steps below to obscure identities while sharing the videos.

Anonymize Individuals

There are several factors to consider when you want to keep an individual’s identity private.

  • Facial and Vocal Recognition – Use a video editor or YouTube’s face blur tool to blur faces. Make sure they are blurred enough to be unrecognizable and in such a way that the visual information cannot be reconstructed. If voices would also reveal an at-risk individual’s identity, use an audio editor to disguise the voice.
  • Other Clues – Check that clothing, tattoos, testimony or other audio or visual information in the footage does not reveal identifying information such as names, titles, license plates, or addresses.
  • Metadata – If there is metadata attached to the footage that would reveal where it was recorded, or by whom, that could also put individuals at risk. Make sure that when you share the video publically, you do so in a way that does not reveal this identifying information. This may include limiting the use or sharing of related social media posts that could expose someone’s identity or location. For example, re-tweeting or reposting a message containing a video on Twitter or Facebook may unintentionally expose the owner of the account.

In situations where there are multiple subjects (such as a riot), be careful not to unintentionally expose the identity of individuals who are not the focus of your investigation.


  1. In an article about a video that showed one young Syrian child beating another while adults off-camera encouraged the violence, WITNESS shared an edited version of the video that blurs the faces of the children.
  2. Amnesty International obtained eyewitness footage of human rights violations committed by members of the Nigerian military. In a video report that includes eyewitness clips of beatings and killings, the organization blurred the faces of victims and perpetrators to protect their privacy.
  3. In its reporting on a video of a sexual assault in Cairo, the New York Times described the video in text rather than sharing the footage.
Blurring Video
Blurring the subjects in a video is an effective way to protect identity.


Witnesses Film a Homophobic Attack

One video from Jamaica illustrates several of these concerns. The video documents the beating of a young man, presumed to be gay, by security guards in a college classroom while a crowd watches and films through the windows. While the video documents abuse, publicly distributing the raw video is problematic for a number of reasons:

  • Consent: The victim was not in a position to consent to the recording.
  • Dignity & Re-victimization: The distribution of the video could cause him to relive a traumatic experience many times over.
  • Security: In Jamaica, as in many parts of the world, the perception that an individual is gay can lead to targeted violence. The distribution of this footage could lead to the victim being perceived as gay (whether he is or not) and put him at risk of further harm.

Though the eyewitness video could be found online, local broadcasters made the ethical decision to blur the victim’s face when showing the footage on television. While
this response addresses some of the aspects of potential harm involved in the video’s distribution, it is an imperfect decision. The victim still had to endure his experience being played out on national television, even if his identity was kept private.

The news networks weighed the potential harm of broadcasting the video with the news value of exposing homophobic violence on the university campus, and made the professional judgment to expose the abuse while minimizing harm.

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