Field Notes

Responsibility to the Audience


Curating eyewitness footage consists of adding context so that the audience can better understand what they are viewing. This context may take the form of a montage of clips pertaining to one particular situation, or an interactive timeline, map, or other non-linear selection of videos. It could also be comprised of text with information about the scene filmed.

  1. Truth in Curation: The curator should ensure that choices made in curation—in placing information and media next to each other—do not fundamentally distort an underlying reality. Ask yourself or your team:
    • Does the juxtaposition of media create a false equivalency?
    • Does it imply a connection that did not previously exist?
    • Does it erase context from the original clip pertinent to understanding its meaning?
    • Does it provide the audience with enough information about why and how the featured clips were selected?
  2. Curating Videos by Hate Groups: As discussed elsewhere in this guide, some videos are made to propagate hate, fear, false rumors, or stereotypes. Consider whether the videos you curate have been produced or distributed with such an objective. If so, take steps to ensure that you are not providing a platform for the propagation of hateful beliefs or false rumors. Provide your audience with information about the objectives of the video.
  3. Transparent Objective: Finally, what is your objective in curating videos? There are a variety
    of purposes of curation—advocacy, journalism, justice, community organizing, etc. Many of the judgment calls you make in curating footage will depend on your own perspective and the purpose of your project. Provide context and explanations for your audience about the choices that were made so that the audience can best understand why certain clips and videos are included, and others are not.


A Montage of Out of Context Clips Reduces Footage to “Violence Wallpaper”

In September, 2013, the news network Al Arabiya reported on a massacre at a camp of Iranian exiles in Iraq. Its coverage included a video “posted on the Internet” described as showing “suspected Iraqi military forces brutally assaulting a camp in Iraq occupied by Iranian dissidents, killing dozens of them.” The problem is, the video was comprised of a compilation of clips, clearly taken from different cameras and possibly from different contexts. At least one of the clips has been found in another video (WARNING: graphic content), described as showing a massacre at the same camp, two and a half years earlier.

There are several problems with the use of this video. First of all, Al Arabiya did not sufficiently verify that the video is of the same event reported on in the story. Secondly, by describing the source of the video with the vague term of “the Internet” without more detail of who posted the video and where, the audience doesn’t know who posted the video and for what reason. Finally, by posting a video that is made up of several different clips of brutal violence, at least one of which is from a different context than the story reported on, Al Arabiya reduces the original footage to mere “violence wallpaper,” devoid of the true reality and specifics of the story at hand and instead standing in as symbolic imagery of a massacre.

A Contrasting Example

The New York Times online feature, Watching Syria’s War, curates footage of the Syrian conflict, including videos from warring sides of the conflict, and graphic images of violence and death. Collectively, the videos show horrific violence. But the videos are presented individually, with context about the particular scene and source of each featured video. When the site features particularly graphic footage, the viewer must click past a warning of the graphic content to press play to watch the video.


Inherently, many eyewitness videos documenting human rights issues are particularly graphic and dis- turbing, and can be difficult to watch. To witness the abuse of others can cause horror, fear, sadness, and a sense of hopelessness. Cumulative viewing can contribute to compassion fatigue and vicarious trauma.

When & How to Curate Graphic Footage

Sensitivities around graphic footage vary across cultures and over time; a viewer is much more likely, for instance, to see graphic footage in Arab news media than on U.S. broadcast news, and thus the two audiences could be expected to have different expectations and sensitivities.

Take steps to curate eyewitness footage in a way that supports your audience’s capacity to engage with the information it documents. This includes recognizing when it may not be beneficial to share a particular piece of footage. To make a professional judgment to decide whether or not to curate a graphic video, ask the following questions:

  • Is the graphic content gratuitous?
  • Does the video use horror in an attempt to manipulate the emotions of the viewers?

Inform viewers that they will confront graphic content.

The way you curate and contextualize a graphic video can make the difference between viewers seeing it as gratuitous violence or informative documentation. Do not curate videos to shock, but rather to inform your audience. Providing context about why the video(s) is important and potential ways viewers can respond helps ensure that the video contributes to a more informed and engaged audience, rather than leaving viewers emotionally exhausted.

If a video shows graphic images such as a killing, corpses or severely injured people, take steps to warn viewers of the graphic content they are about to see, and give them the option to learn about the abuse without being exposed to such images. If the video is included in an online article or blog, consider adding a hyperlink to the video and warning readers that the video is graphic, rather than embedding the video within the post, which viewers may be tempted to click on before they see the warning.

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