Smile! You're On Hidden Camera

01/02/2007 03:10 pm ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

I'm a big supporter of the concept of citizen journalism. But having gone to journalism school and worked in the profession, I realize there are a lot of ethical issues the average person with a camera phone may not be pondering. Most people, and especially teenagers with camera phones, video cameras or web cams don't even consider themselves "citizen journalists," yet the growing ubiquity of these devices and number of public video sites to distribute them on is creating a host of issues for parents, teachers and even entire countries.

I'm referring to the cell phone video taken of Saddam Hussein's hanging. It was obviously taken to unofficially distribute the images to the world, and as a result, has only deepened the sectarian conflict in Iraq. It even prompted one child in Pakistan to imitate the hanging resulting in his death. It's a large scale example of an issue that is actually being played out on a daily basis with teens, parents and teachers. Teens are recording fights, sexual exploits and their teachers and posting them on sites like YouTube. Sometimes it's using a hidden camera and sometimes the teens being recorded will actively participate at the time, not realizing it will be broadcast or shared later.

Today the New York Times posted a story about a web cam community called Stickam. It's pretty fear mongering in its tone, but just as with any camera, including web cams, the possibility for abuse exists. In Stickam's case the fear is more around adults interacting with teens in a sexual way using web cam chat. Any teen who is engaging in web cam related sexual activity with adults is obviously at risk and has some issues. I think it's important to talk to teens about the power of images -- both moving and still when they have any type of recording equipment (that includes cell phones).

I found this list of questions that the Sarasota Herald-Tribune uses when discussing whether or not to run a controversial image:

* What are the alternatives: Can another photo convey the same message and eliminate the concerns?
* Is possession of the technical capability to alter a photograph justifying the proposed manipulation?
* Is all of the necessary information available for discussion: Story and photo readily available?
* Is there any missing information from the photograph?
* What is the news value of the particular photograph?
* Are there legal or ethical concerns about running the photo?
* Who might be offended and why?
* What are the possible consequences of publishing the photo?
* Will we be able to justify our decision?

Obviously publishing news photos is a different decision making process than a teen would go through before deciding to post an image. When I worked at Oxygen and at Current TV, we had to get releases for pretty much everyone we recorded for broadcast. For minors that included releases from a parent or guardian. I think it's worth talking about the moral, legal and ethical issues of recording someone for whatever reason and publishing or uploading an image or footage. I would adapt the questions from the Sarasota Herald and talk to teens about asking themselves the following questions before distributing any images they have taken or recorded of their peers:

* Who might be offended and why?
* Would the individual(s) in my photos or video want their image posted on a public site like MySpace or YouTube?
* What are the possible consequences of publishing the photo or video?
* Am I ok with other people potentially downloading, sharing or altering these photos for their own purposes and potentially being online forever?

My guess is that when teens begin to ask these types of questions, we'll see a little less impulsive uploading and a lot less drama.