A Question of Editorial Ethics

Posted on by Larry

This question about editorial ethics arrived this morning. What would you do?

– – –

The editor writes: Here’s the brief version of my story.

Some time ago a local law firm was given my name and number, and they contacted me to put together a video that they wanted to help make their case in a wrongful death suit against nearby county police. A man was shot and killed by police after he led numerous officers on a high speed chase that endangered the officers themselves and other drivers. The law firm contacting me represented the family. They had car cam and body cam footage they got from the police. I had never done this type of thing before, but I took on the job because a friend had referred me – and I could use the money. It became clear to me that the law firm wanted me to do some selective editing such as shortening the actual time of the chase, omitting certain footage from the chase (ramming police cars), and omitting post shooting moments when a couple of the police officers expressed regret, (one even getting physically sick) and another began praying. As a ‘test’ of sorts, I kept some of these sequences in the video because I wanted to see if the client (the law firm) would specifically tell me to take them out. They did.

I get the fact that this law firm had a duty to the man’s family (their client), and their desire to keep the video brief and to the point for a jury. But I have to say it didn’t set well with me. Still doesn’t obviously.

Yes, whenever we work on a video project – in the writing, shooting, editing, etc – we are manipulating the presentation of something. But this was different for me. Life and death situation. Concealing bits of truth here and there as I saw it.

I’ve learned that I will NEVER undertake a project like this again.

I’m just curious about your take on such my ethical dilemma (given the scant info I’ve given) – and the thoughts of your followers.

– – –

Larry replies: WOW! What a great question. I have never been confronted by this issue in real-life, so it is easy to take the moral high-ground. Plus, I totally understand the pressure to pay the bills.

Hmm… My take is that each of us is responsible for the choices we make. If I had the money to pay that month’s rent, I would have turned down the job – especially as it became obvious that the video was intentionally deceptive. It seems to me this is similar to political ads which are intentionally deceptive in an effort to curry votes. I don’t mind people who disagree with issues I believe in. But I have great difficulty with people who lie or invent false “truth” to make their point.

On the other hand, feeding and housing your family takes priority over everything else. If this job allowed you to keep a roof over your family and keep them fed, then I’d take the job. Though just because you “have” to take the job doesn’t mean you have to like it.

This is situational ethics, I guess. But, for me, you make your choices based on your priorities and whether you can live with yourself afterward.

The editor replied: Did I need the money? I convinced myself I did. Was the job worth the “cost”? No.

Larry adds: Please share your thoughts in the comments.

Bookmark the permalink.

23 Responses to A Question of Editorial Ethics

Newer Comments →
  1. Don Stafford says:

    Your ethics is all you really have. It’s who you are.
    Personally, I would have turned the job down, and possibly (since I don’t know all the details) reported the law firm to the state bar.
    They were suppressing evidence, simply to win the case and make money.
    When one door closes, another opens.
    Then we wonder why lawyers have such a bad name and reputation.

    • Larry says:


      Thanks for your comment. As follow up, the editor didn’t know about the “truth-bending” until after the project started. The original project, as described, looked fine.


      • Robbie Scott says:

        First to Larry,yes, knowing everything up front is not always possible. However, given the turn of events, how likely is it that someone can cancel the contract and walk away?

        And, to Dan,
        Yes, having money to pay bills, house and feed your family is a priority. Fortunately for me, I’ve always had enough work and money. If I were in this situation and had to make a choice, as difficult as it might seem to me, I have to choose straight-up truth over bent truth.

        This kind of behaviour should not be supported. Ethical people vs people with loose ethics — I know where I sit.


  2. Jonathan Young says:

    In this case…I don’t see an issue. It seems, from my understanding of your description, that the state/officers are the defendant. If that understanding is correct, they are the ones supplying the body cam and patrol footage, fulling a FOIA request/subpoena from the prosecution. Both parties have access to the same footage and would be able to expand or contract the amount of footage shown to make ether sides argument. In a case where the defense has footage that the prosecution is unaware, a slanted edit could really be prejudicial. However, after being made aware of its existence, the prosecution could subpoena the “raw” footage and work to remove the “slant” with the jury/judge. As far as politics go…you could edit the most accurate, truthful and creative spot ever and the viewer that doesn’t support your clients position is going to call you a propagandist. Commercials are hype, PSAs are oversimplifications, short films are leading, and documentaries start with a passion (bias). Every tool on this planet can be used to build up or tear down. I think every editor, that has deeply held believes, need to be suspect in the type of work they accept in the first place. The previous sentence is a philosophy that should be employed across any business venture, but public licensed, service businesses, aren’t truly free to reject work on a “deeply held believe.” That is the real ethics question.

  3. Personal injury attorneys are not journalists and do not need to show both sides. They’re suing someone, so they cherry-pick the evidence they have to reinforce their case. The defense lawyers have access to the duplicate footage and can quickly point out the differences if necessary. All the family lawyer is doing is showing footage that speaks to the allegations in the suit against the police. It’s not suppressing evidence because everyone has access to it. I’d edit this in a heartbeat for the family’s lawyer. It’s how the sausage is made, folks.

  4. Gary says:

    If you hadn’t done it, someone else would have. You learned from the situation – it is the way it is. However, you took that awareness and passed it along so others could benefit. Small wins count.

  5. I’ve owned and operated an ad agency for over four decades and have been involved in many aspects on many sides of “spinning” a project for the benefit of a client. Presenting a positive face or perspective is the definition of representing the best interests of a paying customer. Lying, exaggerated falsehoods or just awful and obnoxious production is where one must draw the line. It can be a one off project, such as a law firm video presentation, a political campaign, documentary or corporate image piece… or a long term client you work with on all their advertising needs for decades (radio, TV, print ads, signage, logos, letterhead, brochures et al).

    This can be an especially important role as an independent third party advocate looking to protect my clients branding. All (especially small) businesses face a constant barrage of “free lunch” meetings with media sales representatives who engage in unethical slick blatant arm twisting falsehoods or equally from incompetent newbie reps who will say anything to sell ad commercial packages to gain a commission on their outlet. Once mom or pop business owner is sold on the “wisdom” of locking the majority of their annual ad budget to only one of many media options, said media will typically not do a good job with placement and frequency (“we’ll guarantee two spots every week” vs a concentrated flight every other month), or make slapdash spots that have them look like idiots. A classic trick is to get the owner on camera and scream stock phrases, looking and sounding terrible… but then assure them how great they doing so as to get them to lose objectivity and become ego involved (and love how they’re now a local media “star” with people recognizing them in local checkout lines… without noticing they’re getting laughed at behind their backs). I see my job as protecting my clients from predatory media practices (having been a business owner myself a long time ago and learned the hard way), and in presenting them in as honest and a sincere manner as possible without hyperbole, and especially without being obnoxious. Another media trick is to point out how their offensive ads get “noticed and remembered” in polling… without connecting the dotted line that in the long run people notice and remember to avoid doing business with those offenders.

    I guess my point being, as an independent producer, one must decide for themselves where to draw the line on making a living vs sleeping at night. There are ethics on all sides of various coins out there. Political campaigns in particular… I could make a TON more money if I was willing to spew garbage for fat cat candidates and deceptive initiatives, but prefer taking on low budget honorable people and ideas for much less income and better sleep.

    • Larry Jordan says:


      Thanks for your comments – they are very informative.


    • mike janowski says:

      Alan, thank you for this insightful reply.

      Advertising is one market segment I tended to avoid during my freelance career, due in no small part to the “hucksterish” nature of many of it’s practioners.

      I’ve come to be a little kinder towards those people – they have clients to satisfy, families to support, and not everyone is able to show the wise judgement that you’ve demonstrated.

      As to the OP (“original poster), I commend them for addressing this issue. It’s always important to lift our head from the monitor and consider the larger issues which our work can raise.

      And finally, Happy New Year to you Larry, and a million thanks for the great work you do to help us stay on top of our game!

      • Larry Jordan says:


        Thanks for your thoughts. The original poster is a working editor who asked to remain anonymous because they want to keep working.

        And thanks for your very kind words. A very Happy New Year to you, as well.


  6. Martin says:

    Life is filled with choices between bad & worse. We can take the high ground, but it may just be a bit “higher” ground. The reality is that we can’t live life never getting in the mud and only staying perfect. I’ve produced hundreds of political TV & radio ads and you do what the client is paying you to do. Without outright lying, because as I have told candidates, it will come out, and that is worse than most anything.

    In this court case example, the video editor is not the decision maker, not the deceiver, and just happens to know “some” of both sides of the story. He was paid to do a specific job & the result in no way hid the entire video, because it was all supplied by the police! By editing such a biased video, it was actually giving the other side an example of that very bias.

    If I’m not being very clear it’s because I have only had a half cup of coffee.

  7. A few years back I was asked to help out for some court action. All I did was add some timecode to the display.

    The Judge did not accept that. I don’t see how they would have allowed any “edited footage” for any court case.

  8. Bob says:

    In the 1980’s I was the owner of a real estate development consulting firm based in the San Francisco Bay region. Over several years I gained a solid group of established clients and had a good reputation in the industry. In the mid-80’s one of my business associates introduced me to a real estate developer who had optioned a very desirable property and he hired me to obtain all the government approvals that he needed to proceed.

    Long story short, he paid me a sizeable up front fee and about 2 months into the project he expected me to make false representations in public. After talking to my attorney I wrote that client a check for his advance and never looked back. Guess what? That developer later ran into major legal problems and declared bankruptcy. Lesson learned.

  9. Marshall Johnson says:

    I believe that if you take the job you are working for your client and you should do as they instruct. You are not on the jury. It’s the prosecution’s job to find what they need in order to convince the jury. The jury’s job is to decipher the evidence, not the editor’s job. If you don’t agree with the ethics of the case it’s your prerogative to turn the job down.

  10. The plot, and the pot, is quickly thickening with the maturing of media-oriented Artificial Intelligence. This is called generative artificial intelligence. Don’t be surprised when you are asked to apply AI to advance the client’s goal.

Newer Comments →

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Larry Recommends:

FCPX Complete

NEW & Updated!

Edit smarter with Larry’s latest training, all available in our store.

Access over 1,900 on-demand video editing courses. Become a member of our Video Training Library today!


Subscribe to Larry's FREE weekly newsletter and save 10%
on your first purchase.