Using File Tape

If stations repeatedly use file tape images of tragic events, such as the attack on the World Trade Center or the shootings at Columbine High School, the station may unduly raise viewers' emotions long after the event has passed. Moreover, "red-hot" images may exaggerate the real threat to the public. For example, viewers who repeatedly watch images of children running from a school may believe schools are dangerous when, according to the Centers for Disease Control, school is the safest place children go each day.

Repeated use of file tape with criminal suspects could imply that there is more evidence against the person than really exists. Also, repeated use of crime scene video may give viewers an exaggerated notion of dangers in the community.

In addition, when stations show file tape images, it implies that "there is nothing new on this story," even if the copy under the images contains new and important information.

File tape images can numb viewers but these images also can cause harm to individuals or the families of those whose images appear repeatedly on the news. For example, a station airs video of an AIDS patient to illustrate a story about the disease only to learn after the broadcast that the person has since died. Or, file tape of a crime victim is used in a story about crime legislation, recalling painful emotions for the victim. Journalists should treat victims as "vulnerable people," not merely as file tape images.

Here are some guidelines to consider when using file tape:

  • What is the journalistic purpose for using file tape? What truths does this image tell that would not be told if the picture weren't used?
  • How does the truth of the file picture measure up to the potential harm the continued use of the image might cause to those who were involved in the story?
  • What harm could the use of file video cause to the viewer by repeatedly showing disturbing pictures? Would it confuse? Desensitize? Create false impressions about certain dangers?
  • How clear is it to the viewer that the file tape is not current? What guidelines does your station have about telling viewers they are watching file tape?
  • What is your newsroom policy about how long graphic images are "news" and when they become "file."
  • Does the file tape inadvertently contribute to or perpetuate negative stereotypes?
  • What obligation do you have to notify the people in file tape that you intend to use their images again, sometimes weeks or months after an incident?
  • What guidelines does your newsroom have about the use of file tape in promotions?