Published: Nov. 5, 2019 By

Key takeaways

 The advent of smartphone cameras has ushered in a new era of video activism, in which citizens provide footage to courts and news media.

Sometimes those videos are not what they seem to be.

 CU Boulder Assistant Professor Sandra Ristovska wants to raise the bar on how they’re presented.

A picture is worth a thousand words.

A New York newspaper editor first coined the expression in 1911.

But only recently—with the rise of smartphone cameras, social media and citizen journalists who deploy these tools to expose human rights violations—have we begun to recognize the full potential of images, says media studies Assistant Professor Sandra Ristovska.

“Images have always mattered, but they have traditionally been treated as a sort of illustration on the side—an afterthought,” says Ristovska. “Today, they are finally being recognized as a valuable mode of information on their own. Because of that, we need to take them more seriously.”

In recent years, eyewitness videos have uncovered everything from police brutality in the United States to chemical weapons attacks in Syria. They’ve ignited race riots, swayed international policy, and helped to jail perpetrators of genocide. But videos have also been co-opted by terrorist groups, misused by news organizations and, in a few recent high-profile cases, faked, notes Ristovska.

In one recent case, filmmaker Jordan Peele released a fake video of former President Barack Obama making a speech. It turned out to be a public service announcement warning that videos can be manipulated. In another, a doctored video of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi—appearing to stammer and slur her words—was broadly circulated via social media.

And it’s not uncommon for news organizations to air borrowed video, submitted by viewers or citizen activists, without thoroughly verifying accuracy.

“It’s a bit of a Wild West out there,” says Ristovska, who works with activists, human rights courts, media organizations and future journalists to raise the bar on how videos are vetted and presented.

Telling the untold stories

Born in Macedonia in the 1980s, and shaped by the images she saw during the fall of Yugoslavia, the filmmaker and media scholar has dedicated her career to giving images their due respect.

Although print journalists have historically taken pains to assure accuracy, the same care has not always been taken with images, she notes.

Holocaust photos were routinely mislabeled. The first photojournalism program wasn’t launched until 1946. And it wasn’t until the 1963 assassination of President John F. Kennedy that people began to view TV as a legitimate news source.

Then, in 1991, a man holding a camcorder captured footage of four Los Angeles police officers savagely beating 25-year-old Rodney King. Millions of viewers at home soon saw the footage on TV.

“While the brutality of the incident was tragically common, what was uncommon was that it was captured on tape and became the subject of global outcry, showing the unique power of video to bring the truth to light,” explains the human rights group Witness, which was founded the next year to train camera-toting activists to use video to effect change.


2018 Filmmaker Jordan Peele releases a fake video of former President Barack Obama making a speech. It turns out to be a public service announcement warning that videos can be manipulated.

2018 Eyewitness video shows hospitalized children being treated after a chemical weapons attack in Syria. 

2017 The International Criminal Court issues an arrest warrant for an alleged military commander in Libya based solely on social media video evidence. 

2011 The Arab Uprising: Egyptian activists take to the streets, filming with their smartphones and broadcasting video internationally via social media.

1991 The Rodney King beating launched a new era of video-driven human rights activism.

A new era of video activism was born. But with this video revolution has come a challenge: How does one assure the video is what it says it is?

“For a while, people thought, ‘Great. We don’t have to send a foreign correspondent to Syria. We can use this instead,’” Ristovska says. “But it’s not that simple.”

Some progress is already being made, she notes.

For instance, The New York Times now has an extensive video analysis and verification team that works to ensure that video provided from eyewitness activists or social media sites is what it says it is. ProPublica, BBC and other news organizations have initiated similar efforts.

And groups like Witness continue to work with those shooting video to teach safe and ethical filming techniques.

Through her books, Visual Imagery and Human Rights Practice and Seeing Human Rights: Video Activism as a Proxy Profession, Ristovska argues that news organizations and courts need to do more to verify accuracy, by cross-checking against satellite imagery, street views or geotagged photos, give credit to those who shot them, and not overstate their meaning.

She tells her journalism students the same thing.

Meanwhile, she cautions the public to rely on more than one news source and to not get too paranoid about “deep fakes” (like the Peele and Pelosi videos), which are still rare in the news media and technologically unsophisticated.

Bottom line, she says: Recognize that even images have their limits.

“Images can reveal but they can also conceal. We have to learn how to live with that and not necessarily demand more from them than they can give.”

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