Lesson Four: Legal and Ethical Aspects of Reality TV
Print this lesson [PDF]
Target Audience: High School Students
Subject Area: Media Arts Production
Objective: Students will learn about the basic legal and ethical responsibilities
shouldered by people making "reality" videos (i.e. videos with non-actors).
Equipment: VCR and Video Monitor, Show #2 of American High ("Who
Am I?"), other "Reality TV" programs.
- Privacy. Videomakers can get themselves into legal trouble if
they violate the privacy rights of others. Securing personal releases and
location releases can alleviate this concern.
- Libel. When we disseminate untrue things about people that might
harm their reputations, we run a serious risk of lawsuit. The best defense
against libel is to double check our facts and make sure our videos speak
- Filming Illegal Activities. If we film illegal activities, we are
creating evidence that may be used against the participants in legal proceedings.
Sometimes invoking the journalists first amendment right can protect
us against this possibility.
- Distinction between Law and Ethics. Students should understand
that ethical responsibilities hold videomakers to higher standards than
mere legal requirements. Treating our participants ethically is not only
the right (moral) thing to do. It is, surprisingly, the smart (effective)
thing to do.
- Fairness. At the end of the day, we want the participants of our
videos to feel that they havent been exploited or harmed by our videos.
The two most important tools available to the videomaker in this regard
are the fully informed consent and the opportunity for the participant to
review the video before completion and broadcast. In between, videomakers
should put themselves into the shoes of their participants and ask at every
step of the way, "How would I feel if I were portrayed this way?"
Class Procedure: The legal and ethical dimensions of making "Reality
TV" are sufficiently complex to merit graduate level coursework and much
legal exegesis. The outlined lesson plan is schematic but lengthy. Instructors
will want to pick and choose among the many issues worthy of discussion. The
key thing is to get your students to consider the dangerous minefield, which
confronts them when making reality TV, and how they can best avoid fatal explosions.
I. Screen Show #2 of American High ("Who Am I?"). Have your
students get in the head of one of the charactersparticularly Morgan or
Brad. Ask them to brainstorm and discuss the pros and cons of participating
in documentaries or "reality TV" shows. Ideally, theyll hit
on some of these key issues:
- To be famous: 15 minutes of fame, to get exposure (actor wannabes)
- To make money (e.g. $1,000,000 from Survivor)
- To tell a particular story or promote a cause (e.g. Morgan wanting
to tell people about his battle with ADD in American High Show
- To gain greater confidence or self awareness (e.g. Brad in American
High Show #2)
- To be analytical about ones life (e.g. Allie in "Pressure
- For fun and kicks to hang out with cool videomakers
- Invasion of privacy
- Embarrassment, humiliation, harm to reputation
- Getting in trouble with the law, with the boss, with friends or
C. Ask your students to distinguish between short run consequences of participation
and long range ones. Lead them to acknowledge that the long-range consequences
are more uncertain. We dont know who well be, what well
be, where well be in five, ten, or twenty years.
II. Ask your students to research the following legal terms in small groups
and report the meaning of each to the whole group. Ask the entire class to discuss
the relevance of these terms to reality television. Can your students imagine
how an unethical videomaker could get herself in trouble vis-à-vis these
concepts? Ask them to dream up hypothetical situations or cite real cases with
which they may be familiar.
- Invasion of Privacy
- Negligence Resulting in Property Damage or Bodily Harm
- Subpoena for Criminal Proceeding
III. Also ask your students to research the following videomaker tools in small
groups and report the meaning of each to the whole group. Ask the entire class
to discuss the relevance of these terms to reality television. Can your students
imagine how an smart and ethical videomaker can avoid trouble by availing herself
of these tools? Ask them to show how the use of these tools would help in the
hypotheticals or actual cases mentioned in above.
- Personal Release
- Location Release
- Informed consent
IV. Ask your students to investigate cases in media law such as
- Westmoreland v. CBS (1984) [see Edwin Moïse:
Vietnam War Bibliography: The Order of Battle Dispute and the Westmoreland
Lawsuit at <http://www.lbjlib.utexas.edu/shwv/mb/ob.htm>,
also Review of Renata Adlers book Reckless Disregard at
- Food Lion v. ABC (1996) [In Focus: Food Lion vs. Capital
Cities/ABC interactive case study at http://www.akingump.com/foodlion/intro.html,
Also "The Food Lion Case: Are Journalists Above the Law? At
- Anderson v. Fisher Broadcasting (1986)
[Legal Opinion at < http://jcomm.uoregon.edu/~tgleason/j385/Anderson.htm>,
See also "Privacy Law in the US" at <
- Falwell v. Flynt (1986) [see Media Libel Web Site
Map at <http://www.hfac.uh.edu/comm/media_libel/webmap.html>]
- WDAF-TV v. McCaskill (1996) [see Legal Opinion at
V. Ask your students to describe these cases to the rest of the class.
- What were the facts in each case?
- What are the competing interests involved in each case? (E.g. Individuals
privacy v. the Publics right to know. E.g. Police need to prosecute
crime v. Journalists right to protect sources)
- What was the legal outcome of each case? Why did it turn out that way?
VI. Present your students with the following two hypothetical cases and ask
them to apply their common sense and what they learned by researching legal
cases to the hypotheticals.
- Hypothetical #1. You live in a small town where there is a relatively
large use of heroin. In spite of the widespread use of heroin, there is
little awareness of the situation by non-users, and there are few treatment
options available to users. You want to remedy both situations by making
a video documentary about heroin users in your community. Ask your students
how do go about making this documentary? How would they present the activities
of heroin users? The following issues should surface is classroom discussion
1. Use hidden cameras?
- What are the pros and cons?
- Is filming with hidden cameras illegal or just unethical?
2. What is the difference between "illegal" and "unethical"
- Is it illegal or unethical to violate someones privacy to reveal
that persons illegal or unethical behavior?
- What about the practical danger of shooting such events?
3. Consider shooting heroin users with their permission. Why
might you want to protect the participant? (Because theyre disclosing
important information to the public at great personal risk through participation
in a documentary video).
4. Obtain an informed consent from the participants. Have a lengthy and wide-ranging
discussion with potential participants before asking them to sign personal
- Determine exactly who is the right person to discuss participation.
- Is the participant a minor? Then you have to obtain consent from a
parent or guardian.
- Give as much information as possible about what the video will be
like, who will see it, what the consequences will be. Discuss with the
participant/decision-maker what his or her fears or anxieties are. Try
to predict what some of the problems or conflicts will be. Ask potential
participants how they might feel about revealing their shortcomings.
We all have shortcomings. How many of us would be willing to be presented
"warts and all?"
5. How do we protect our participants who are doing illegal things?
- Blurring faces, shooting in silhouette, concealing participants
- Destroying camera tapes once the final program has been mastered.
- Asserting the first amendment right of journalists by refusing to
surrender tapes to the police? What is this right, and what is its purpose?
Do you have to be a journalist to assert this right? Why? What are the
dangers of asserting this right? (Imprisonment until the case is adjudicated.)
- Hypothetical #2. Ask your students to imagine making a video documentary
about a public figure in their community, like the mayor. The mayor has
been very generous is granting you access to her public and private
life. Without this cooperation, it would be hard to imagine making a documentary.
Suppose you find out from a couple of sources that the mayor has a serious
drinking problem. Ask your students if they can incorporate this information
into their documentary? Should they? Ask your students to discuss the following:
1. Are the rules different for public figures than for private ones?
- What are the elements of "libel" again?
- Can a videotape that is critical of a person, but tells the truth
be considered libelous? Of course not. Why not? Why is the element of
truth a legal bar to proving libel in court?
- Videotape provides a photographic record of things that actually happened,
right? Ask your students how videotape programs can lie all the same.
- Narration can contain untrue elements
- Participants could say untrue things about others. Hearsay.
Why is that ultimately the responsibility of the videomaker?
- Editing and framing distort things (they remove the context, change
the chronology, leave out important facts necessary to get the whole
- Do your students recognize that there is a different standard for
public figures than for others?
- What does this mean? Why is this so?
- Who is a public figure?
- Does this mean that public figures have no privacy? Can
a videomaker invade the privacy of a public figure?
- Ask your students to discuss how they could avoid libel in this
- Double-check your facts.
- Show the video to the person who might feel libeled. Get their
feedback. This is easier said than done. Why?
Recommended Reading and Reference Links:
About the Author: Jonathan Mednick is both an award-winning filmmaker
and an experienced educator in the fields of film/television production and
media studies. This past year, Mednick was a producer and director on the critically
acclaimed PBS TV series American High. Mednicks role on American
High included teaching video production to the students at Highland Park
High School and supervising the making of the student-produced video diaries
that are featured so prominently in the show. Mednicks latest film, Dita
and the Family Business -- a personal documentary about the family behind
New York Citys fabled Bergdorf-Goodman Department Store -- will begin
its theatrical run in New York City in September 2001. Jonathan Mednick is currently
teaches film directing and producing at the University of Central Florida. He
has also taught media production at New York University, Wesleyan University,
and at the University of Iowa.