Citizen Journalism Ethics: Bystander Who Filmed Walter Scott Shooting Seeks Payout

Citizen Journalism Ethics: Bystander Who Filmed Walter Scott Shooting Seeks Payout

A gut-wrenching mobile video clip depicting South Carolina police officer Michael Slager killing Walter Scott went viral earlier this month. The bystander behind the footage, Feidin Santana, has partnered with celebrity publicity agency Markson Sparks to license the footage, causing a stir among those who claim he's profiting from a death.

It was all over the news last week: Shaky cell phone footage shows officer Slager shooting an unarmed man who tried to flee a routine traffic stop on April 4th. Within days, a frightened bystander who caught it all on camera shared the footage with the victim's family. The video clip was broadcast around the world, including over one million views on YouTube, and the officer has since been arrested and charged with murder.

Seeking Profit From Tragedy?

This week, Santana's new publicist has put a stop to unlicensed broadcast of the clip, sending cease-and-desist letters to major news networks unless they pay up—a one-time fee rumored to be as much as $10,000. The move has left many to wonder if it's ethical to seek profit from the clip, and whether it may even fall under the fair use doctrine.

As photographers, we license our photos and footage regularly throughout our course of business. At one time or another, most of us have felt the sting of finding our work used without permission or payment, but no one questions the ethics of sending cease-and-desist letters over a commercial stock photo.

Those in the field of photojournalism have a more daunting role, with many capturing horrific scenes in conflict zones and licensing the resulting images as part of a normal day's work. It's certainly the darker side of the industry, but it's standard protocol, with the most socially relevant and exclusive content yielding the highest monetary rewards.

Santana's lawyer, Todd Rutherford, defended the prospect of licensing the clip, telling the New York Times, "The search for justice is served by turning the video over to law enforcement," while the news, he said, appears to be in the "search for revenue."

The Rise of Citizen Journalism

Affordable technology has brought a rise in citizen journalism. 

More than fifty years ago in Dallas, Texas, Abraham Zapruder was a bystander to President Kennedy's assassination and caught the historical moment in a now infamous 26-second clip. The offers poured in, and he eventually sold the film and rights to Life magazine for $150,000. Decades later, the clip was declared public property, and Zapruder's family was compensated with $16 million by the U.S. government.

In 1991, the beating of Rodney King during an arrest by LAPD officers was videotaped by George Holliday from his apartment balcony. Holliday would come to regret selling the tape for a mere $500. Months later, Timothy Goldman earned tens of thousands of dollars licensing his own footage of the Los Angeles riots.

But not everyone is out for a payday. Adam Stacey was trapped underground during the London bombings in 2006, and ultimately released his photo of the incident to Creative Commons, which allows others to use the image for free. He told the BBC, "I didn't think of the image as my property. It would have seemed so mercenary to make money from it."

What Do You Think?

Santana's publicist, Max Markson, who's represented clients such as Arnold Schwarzenegger, Bill Clinton, and Nelson Mandela, makes no apologies for seeking a license fee for Santana's clip, telling Fairfax Media:

"This is what I do for a living. I license footage. Media organisations [sic] who want to use the footage, they've had their fair use of it. If they want to continue using it, we'll issue them with cease-and-desist letters. They'll need to license it. There's nothing underhand or wrong about this."

How do you feel about payouts for citizen journalists? Is it unethical or justified? Share your opinion in the comments below.

Hillary Fox's picture

Hillary Fox is a commercial travel & lifestyle photographer, author, and producer currently based in South Africa. Under contract with agencies like Getty Images and Stocksy United, she's sold tens of thousands of image licenses to media outlets around the world. She hosts photowalks and photography workshops throughout the USA, EU, and Africa.

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"The search for justice is served by turning the video over to law enforcement," while the news, he said, appears to be in the "search for revenue." Good argument. Still, this just feels absolutely wrong.

He deserves his fair share of the profitability of that story. While news stations make milions on their programming I think mere 10K are not even enough. Its not about the content but about the usage of the said video.

once it is turned over to law enforcement for evidence it becomes public record.

Who cares.

IMHO He performed a vital public service that was long overdue. He deserves whatever he's asking...within the bounds of good taste.

It may be a little late for the photographer to make money on his video news clip. The news and talk show channels profit by having it. I see no reason why he shouldn't earn money from it. I've made a career out of covering news. People sell news images every single day and always have.

Photojournalist who photograph wars, conflicts and such get paid to do so..... Networks who receive such footage "SELL" it to other networks for profit. Now all of a sudden you guys have a problem with selling photographs or video because you feel it profits from someone's death. Where's your bleeding heart when the networks do it?

On one hand, he did the public a HUGE service and deserves something for putting his life in danger.

On the other hand, fuck this publicist who's trying to make money off the kid who's doing the right thing. I'm sick of people trying to profit off things because they went viral. If I took a picture on my iphone and it turned out to somehow become a news story for some random reason, I would say eff it and get the free, random credit and not ask for anything in return.

Now if I take a photo, really take time to process it, and I put a lot of hard work and energy into it then yes I want compensation for it. This kid helped stop that asshole cop and he should be proud of what he did. But giving him money for this would really change my perception of him. Because now it's not like he did it because it was the right thing to do, but more because he saw a cash payout.

Which isn't the truth at all, it's just some random kid that a fucking publicist got a hold of and he got his head cluttered with greed and now wants to cash in respect for money.

"Now if I take a photo, really take time to process it, and I put a lot of hard work and energy into it then yes I want compensation for it." that's a skewed viewed. You don't charge or get paid by how much "time you take to process it" or how difficult an image is to make. It's all on usage/license. There's plenty of snap shot taken with DSLRs that go for a lot of money.

I believe if a tragedy is captured by accident…such as filming an auto race and capturing a fatal accident, or filming a city scene for profit and capturing a shooting then yes I would seek a profit… But if, as in this circumstance, I purposely filmed an encounter that resulted in a tragedy then no profit should be asked for. It would be like charging a police department for witness evidence. Making a profit from another’s death or injury would be blood money to me and classless.


Keith, what about journalist and war photographers? They are pretty much there and paid to capture horrible moments. Many journalist submit these photos of tragedy to contest and win awards, accolades, money, recognition and top of their payment. There's many "iconic" photos of someone's death or injury. In fact, most pulitzer prize winning photos are of people suffering and/or death. James Nachtwey has made a career out of capturing horrific event from around the world which include photos of death and injury. He's hired and paid directly to capture those images. By your logic he along with many journalist are classless?

To me this is a different situation. They are paid to document those moments for history. It is the same as filming a stock car race... the chance of death and injury is an accepted possibility.

It is a personal choice I agree but if it were me I would give the video to the authorities first and only to the media if I thought justice was not done. And then it would be for free. I could not bring myself to purposely make a profit from another death.


Media don't care about informing public more than making profit. Why shouldn't they pay for material?
This whole argument is just wrong. How about war correspondents? Should they work for free too?

"How do you feel about payouts for citizen journalists? Is it unethical or justified?"

Why make a distinction between citizen journalists vs regular journalists - your question implies that there should be a difference - that only "real" journalists should get paid for reporting on other people's it ethical or justified for ANYONE be paid for reporting on someone's else suffering?

A news station that uses his video to gain viewership and in turn sell advertising to turn a profit should be obliged to pay for its source material. The same goes for printed media. It's exploitation otherwise.

One positive outcome from licensing the footage (to media who sell advertising against it) could be the incentive to capture police actions by more citizens. Santana considered deleting the footage because he was afraid of repercussions from the police. Perhaps more footage would surface and more justice would be served if there was a reward (profit) for capturing injustice.

I feel that if the media uses an image or video you took on their broadcast or website (and social media, etc), then they should compensate the person who took it. Period. Having to pay for content might also encourage them not to give away jobs because someone will capture it with an iPhone and give it to them for free.