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The ethics of filming activists

The idea for this story came while we were brainstorming how we should cover the Copenhagen Climate Conference.  We knew that protests would be a big part of Copenhagen, and we wanted to try to get inside one of those protests, to see who was doing them, and how they came together.

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I made some phone calls, and eventually spoke to a Canadian climate change activist known for doing "direct action".  He's one of the leaders of a group called "People for Climate Justice", who were planning a series of direct action protests across Canada before and during Copenhagen.  I told him the type of access driven stories I do, how I work alone with my small camera, and how I was trying to find a group planning an action.

He put me in touch with a group of activists in Toronto.  I met with their organizer, and she agreed to have me follow along as they did their action, as well as at their final night of preparations.  They wouldn't tell me where the action was going to take place, only that it was near Toronto.

So we had a good story, and good access. But should we use the access and do the story? This story raised some serious ethical questions for us.  Would we be tacitly condoning the action of activists planning to break the law by filming them?  How would the police react when we were on the scene ahead of them? I spoke with my senior producers at the show and we had a long discussion about how I could keep my role to that of a neutral observer. They were confident I could, but still worried about any effect my camera might have on the event. The executive producer of the National, Mark Harrison, then spoke with Esther Enkin, who deals with tricky policy issues for CBC news. Esther thought we could do the story, but only under certain conditions.

We decided it would be alright for me to be a fly-on-the-wall for the protest and preparations, as long as I never felt they were performing or embellishing the story for the camera.  The understanding with the protestors was that if I felt they were acting for the camera, I wouldn't film it.  Some of this pressure was relieved in knowing that by the time I started filming, they were in the final stages of planning.  Whether I was there or not, the protest would go ahead.

Obviously, as a CBC journalist, I can't break the law or trespass to get a story, but I still spoke with one of the CBC lawyers to get advice on filming on private property. We also decided to have a National producer, Michael Drapack, come to the protest to be another set of eyes at the scene.

To add another layer of detachment, we decided to wait two weeks before airing the story.

And finally, we decided to make the piece one part of a larger segment, eventually combining the story with a Wendy Mesley item on whether protesting actually accomplishes anything.
In the end, all went smoothly. The police were respectful while doing their jobs, and the protestors were non-violent but resolute.  And the story, I hope, gives viewers an interesting insight into something we often hear of, but know little about.