EDITORIAL: The Ethics of Video Exclusives, Embedding, and the Future of Online Film Journalism

     July 9, 2009


We’re in the Wild West right now.  The Internet rules of journalism are still being fleshed out and there’s a battle right now between what’s ethical and what’s useful, both to the owners of content and to the end-user.  We have no governing body and  most of us in the online journalism field don’t have journalism majors, took a class in journalism, or even worked for a print publication with maybe the exception of our high school newspapers.*  Add to that unanswered questions about online distribution and ownership and it’s no wonder that editors across the net are sniping at each other with one side labeled as scoundrels** and the other side labeled as relics.

As the Internet makes access to data easier by the second, we find ourselves caught in an eternal conflict: do we do what is right or what is easy?  And is what’s easy always wrong and is what’s right always worthy?

Before we can even begin to come to a solution, I have a few requests to make.  To begin, let me ask all those who feel ethically superior to their peers to kindly shut up.  You are only hurting your own cause.  The more you breathe your white-hot, righteous indignation into the faces of ethical violators, both real and perceived, will cause those violators to rebel and ignore your tut-tutting.  You don’t win people to your cause by lobbing insults and shaming them onto your side, no matter how right you may be.  If you truly want folks to behave ethically, then you have to reach out a hand and tell them why it’s in their best interest to behave that way.

And to those who feel on the defensive and see no issue with their actions, I would ask that you reconsider, try to see why others would find fault with those actions (“Because they’re stupid,” is not an acceptable answer), and correct yourself where applicable.  If you have trespassed ethically, then try to set the problem right and don’t do it again in the future.  Create a policy you find ethically and practically justifiable, stick to it, and then point to that policy when someone finds faults with your actions.

Now to specifics: let’s talk video embedding, which is a major source of contention among me and my peers.

editorial_justice_scales_01.jpgFirst, we must accept that studios are still playing catch-up.  To their mind, it’s wisest to distribute new clips and trailers to behemoth sites like Yahoo! and Apple and in a way, they’re right.  Both sites can offer over a million hits within twenty-four hours of a trailer going live.  Neither site offers an embeddable player***.  Neither site competes with regular entertainment news sites.  Apple doesn’t offer any movie news and Yahoo! Movies draws mostly from AP and Reuters and provides no commentary.  And have you ever seen a writer from Yahoo, Apple, Moviefone, or MySpace at a screening, junket, or set visit?  Of course not.  We’re in different businesses.  It’s hard to cry about journalistic integrity when one side has no journalists.

If we link to them and provide only a link, that is ethical.  However, at the same time, we undermine the development of what’s best for the users and ultimately what’s best for sites like ours.  By providing that link we say “It’s okay to give major movie trailers to massive sites that aren’t entertainment-based,” and we say “It’s okay to do things the old way and drag your feet on new modes of distribution like embeddable players and social networking links.”  Yeah, it feels good to have the ethical superiority, but it doesn’t make anyone’s life better.  Your integrity can’t get you more hits, it can’t change the playing field, and it can’t make anyone’s site better.  If you want to feel good about yourself, may I suggest quitting this business and working for Amnesty International.  You’ll make more of a difference.

This foolishness allows a controversial site like TrailerAddict to thrive.  Their only purpose is to not only rip trailers from other sites, but place their own logo over it and then take all the traffic.  And what do they offer?  Just an embeddable player.  That’s it.  And Internet users, always demanding what is easiest and fastest, will choose the embeddable player that they can then embed on their own site or social networking page.  TrailerAddict is the infection caused by the wound and we’re getting mad at the effect rather than the cause.

editorial_mustaches_are_awesome.jpgSites are entitled to their exclusives but I believe those sites then have a responsibility both to their readers and to their peers to makes sure that an exclusive reaches as many people as possible, otherwise, it’s wasted content.  Yahoo! and Apple don’t care because they are not our peers.  I’m not saying they’re bad sites or that they’re malicious.  I’m saying that an exclusive trailer for them doesn’t mean to them what it means to the rest of us.  When ShockTillYouDrop landed the Jennifer’s Body trailer earlier this week and that was a major get for them.  To steal that trailer is to steal traffic from a peer site.

And I feel like it should go without saying but since some editors out there still don’t seem to get it, let me say it as clearly as I can: If you rip video (or any exclusive content) from another site and put your watermark over it, you are stealing.  It is indefensible.  I’m not talking about the player itself (which should have your logo if you spent time and money developing the player), but the actual video.  Your attempt to do right by your readers in the short term is doing wrong by your peers and that will hurt you in the long-term when you’re bad-mouthed to publicists and no one links to your exclusives.  You can’t treat the community like shit and be so dense to think that they’ll allow it without repercussions.

We all want to do what is ethical.  I doubt there is any webmaster who wakes up in the morning, slaughters a few puppies, drinks their blood, and cries, “Mwahaha, I wonder whose content I shall steal today.”  But we must consider the purpose of our ethics.  When we try to do what is ethical rather than consider each individual action, we can end up failing ourselves in the long-term and actually undermine the ethics we hope to uphold.  Many online movie sites continue to link back to Variety and The Hollywood Reporter, providing those sites with traffic.  And yet Variety and THR rarely, if ever, provide credit to any of us for breaking a story first.  They do no journalistic legwork in finding scoops but rather receive their news through press releases.  They are not our peers and yet, if we maintain what we perceive as ethically right in linking back to them, we reinforce their bad behavior just as we reinforce the bad behavior of studios and mega-sites that don’t work as hard as us in making sure their content reaches the widest audience possible.

editorial_wild_west_01.jpgThere are ethical rights and wrongs even in this brave new world of online journalism.  We should police each other (although we should do so in order to serve stronger ethics and our mutual survival and not to placate our own egos) but we must also prevent stagnation in providing what is best for ourselves and our readers.  If we are serious about protecting our content, then we must do everything in our power before lashing out at others for their lazy and dubious standards.  Whether that means watermarking content or building our own embeddable players, we have to do everything in our power to both share content while maintaining profitability.  It’s a difficult balance but our problem is solved neither by shouting down those who offend us nor do the offenders who brazenly rip content while providing nothing of their own help themselves when they need the support of their peers in order to build a larger and stronger following of readers.  We have to be able to tell our friends from our enemies and if we refuse to compromise and build a coalition, then we’re all going to be at each others throats and eventually provide nothing but news from the trades, movie reviews, and the occasional editorial.  We’re better than that and our readers deserve more content than that.

We are in the Wild West right now and we have to do better.  The integrity of our profession depends on it but that integrity is meaningless if all it does is make us feel self-righteous and doesn’t force us to make content more easily available to our readers while still respecting each others exclusives.  It’s not going to be easy and we’re all going to make mistakes along the way but it’s better than having the same old feuds about who’s got the best ethics.

*Full Disclosure: I do not have a major in journalism; I did, however, take whatever journalism classes Oberlin College offered (all two of them), had an internship at “The Coast” (an alternative weekly in Nova Scotia), and continue to write for INsite Magazine (an alternative monthly published in Atlanta, Boston, and Austin).

**I so rarely get to use that word.  If nothing else, it made this article worth my time.

***Straight from the page; I know that Yahoo has a separate video site but that’s never their main link so for all intents and purposes, they don’t care about giving folks an embeddable player.


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