Audio ethics: Are you ‘fooling listeners’?

Editor’s note: How real does reality need to be? How much editing is too much? Must a producer use only sound recorded on site, in the moment a story occurs or is reported? Are journalism and documentary bound by the same ethics?

Those questions emerged the “Journalism and Storytelling: Frenemies?” session at the 2014 Third Coast Conference in Chicago, one of this year’s first and most discussed panels. (You can find the audio here.)

Joe Richman (“Radio Diaries”) led the discussion, which included panelists Brooke Gladstone (WNYC’s “On the Media”), Roman Mars (“99 Percent Invisible”) and Andrea Silenzi (Slate’s “The Gist” and WFMU’s “Why Oh Why”).


The debate continued for days after the conference on the AIRdaily, the listserv for AIR’s network of producers.

Here, with the authors’ permission, are lightly edited excerpts of that conversation.


“We weren’t interested in fooling listeners into thinking they were hearing a plane in one place and time when in fact they were hearing another.”

Sigh. It’s so not fun being the fuddy-duddy arguing for traditional ethics in the use of sound. But oh well, here I go.

Mostly I’m thinking of the newer producers on the list. It would be easy to get the impression from the Third Coast session on ethics (whether you were there or listen online) that it’s widely accepted practice in all kinds of public radio documentary work to drop in sounds recorded elsewhere if you didn’t get them in the scene you’re setting in your piece. Um. It is not. 

Here’s a story I tell my students sometimes: Back in 2000, in my American RadioWorks days, I was doing a doc for “All Things Considered,” looking back on the bombing of Pan Am 103, that plane that fell on Lockerbie, Scotland in 1988.

We opened the piece, along with narration about the plane taking off from Heathrow airport on Dec. 21, 1988, with nice stereo sound of a 747 taking off — recorded in Minneapolis in 2000.

We (my editor was Deb George, who worked for both NPR and ARW at the time) got into a little tussle with our other NPR editor, Loren Jenkins, over whether this was deceiving the listener.

We said it wasn’t because we thought the listener would know we weren’t trying to pass off our sound as that plane in London 12 years before — the audience would get that we were using the sound to evoke, not to document, that specific event. Jenkins insisted we make it clear.

In the end my narration said something like “Pan Am 103, a 747 like this one.” An easy fix, since we were narrating.

If this had been an un-narrated piece, as in Joe Richman’s Mandela example, we’d have had a bigger problem and probably couldn’t have used the sound. We didn’t think the clarification was necessary but had no problem with Jenkins’ principle. We weren’t interested in fooling listeners into thinking they were hearing a plane in one place and time when in fact they were hearing another.

I imagine some eyes rolling out there. Sheesh, relax, it’s just a freaking sound.

But to me, Brooke Gladstone’s principle is the operative one: It’s about your contract with your listeners — the expectations that you’ve set up based on the type of piece you’re doing.

I’ve used sound effects off a CD to recreate a 1940s office for a woman telling a story of overt anti-Semitism back in the day. Not cheating, because in the context of that historical doc, the listener would understand that it was a recreation, that I wasn’t claiming I’d somehow got the sound of that office on that day 60 years before.

I once did foley in my garage for a playful stream-of-consciousness Third Coast short doc. No “RadioLab” listener takes those beeps and static-y sounds literally when Jad [Abumrad] wants to dramatize the workings of the human brain. It’s all good.

But when doing straightforward nonfiction storytelling, whether in a news feature or a doc, I want listeners to know that when they hear a sound in a scene, hell, yes, I recorded that then and there.

Sure, we move sounds around in time at the micro level so that the dog in the distance barks during a talker’s pause, etc., just as we edit quotes while preserving the spirit of what was said. But that dog was in that place on that day. I’m not going to import a dog … that wasn’t there. 

On your own show or podcast you can set your own standards, your own contract with the listener. …

I got the memo in Chicago that Andrea Silenzi might be doing audio drama as well as nonfiction at any given time. Didn’t know that; now I do and will listen to “Why Oh Why” very differently from now on. Seems it’s all pretty much fair game, soundwise, on “99% Invisible.” But at least in most public radio news/journalism contexts, it’s still the case that sounds are expected to be just what they seem to be — sounds recorded in that place at that time.

If I’m dead wrong or this is an outdated notion, let’s hear it from people working at network or station news organizations. 

John Biewen
(Audio program director, Center for Documentary Studies at Duke University)


“Ethics are gray area…I think it is right to clue the audience in on the gray areas.”

John, I really appreciate you writing this. We run a training academy for radio producers at KALW, and many of our newly hatched producers were in that Third Coast audience. I had the same concerns as you about what their takeaway would be from that session. 

It’s great to be having this conversation, and I agree that there are many ways to approach sound design, especially given the various types of content we produce. That’s one reason this job is so fun! But I do think it’s pretty vital to really get grounded in the fundamentals of journalistic ethics, and be as transparent as possible in what we’re presenting (explicitly or not) as true or real. 

Seems like the basic question is something like, “Will the audience, by default, assume this sound/person/scenario is real?”

If the answer is yes, but the reality is no, then I think it is right to clue the audience in on the gray areas. That could be by making it clear that the show/segment isn’t journalism; that could be in the way narration is written; that could be in the kind of sonic dramatization that “RadioLab” does so well. 

Ethics are gray areas, for sure. That’s why it’s so good to talk this stuff out, and be especially aware of what we’re communicating to the newbies in our midst.

Julie Caine
(Managing producer/KALW News)


I’m with you, John (no surprise there) and so is Laura Sullivan, who opened her fantastic breakout session stating in no uncertain terms that investigative reporting is no place for bringing in sound that wasn’t gathered during the reporting.

Lisa Morehouse
(Independent producer) 


“My ex was a gun fancier and when watching a movie would say, ‘That is not the sound from that type of gun.'”

I am an independent producer. I will add sound not from the scene to a memory story.

I am constantly adding to my own sound collection to use in my stories for this purpose: Steam engine from Greenfield Village, creaky floors from an old mill, crows, etc. BUT, I am very careful–even with non-news or documentary.

If you use that crow call and there are other birds faintly in the background, the bird people will know whether that was a crow calling distress or for mating in a particular season or whether that particular crow does not live in that region or based on the other birds not recorded in that location. If they hear that, you have broken the story for them and thus, you have broken trust.

My ex was a gun fancier and when watching a movie would say, “That is not the sound from that type of gun.”

I heard information all over the map at the conference:

“Be careful about editing a sentence!” vs. “We take all of the ‘buts’ and label them for use later in a three-minute piece with 275 edits.”

“Borrow from free sound sites.” vs. “Go out and collect your own for future use.” vs. “It should be from the location at the time.”

I’m more old school as I don’t like to get sent to the corner for breaking something and yet, I’ve probably violated someone else’s code of ethics.

Of course, I have simplified this post for the sake of discussion. The discussion of ethics deeply interests me.

I have trouble, for the sake of the story, being aggressive or violating privacy or knowing that others will laugh at this person. I feel it a privilege that anyone would speak to me on mic. Thus, while I think “ruthless” when editing and will “kill my darlings, I think “be kind” when thinking of the people I have recorded.

Maybe that makes me a less good reporter of life. Last night, I listened to this podcast from Rob Rosenthal’s “HowSound.” 

I am self-trained. I did not have an ethics class and would appreciate links that would be useful for this topic.

(I am NOT doing news stories, by the way.)

Nancy Camden
(Producer, “Spotting Wisconsin”)


“If I was taking pictures of Farmer John’s sheep, would I publish a picture of Farmer Jane’s sheep and say they were Farmer John’s? Nope.” 

Thanks for continuing the discussion, John. 

I tend to think in terms of photography in response to questions like this. Not sure why but it seems to work. Here’s how: 

If I was taking pictures of Farmer John’s sheep, would I publish a picture of Farmer Jane’s sheep and say they were Farmer John’s? Nope. 

If not, then why would it be okay to do so in radio? 

As for Andrea Silenzi’s “Why Oh Why” podcast, I, too, had no idea she was producing fiction from time to time (though I wondered). What troubled me about that was this: 

My favorite episode of “Why Oh Why” featured an honest and wide ranging discussion about IUDs. I was floored by it. Loved it. But, now that I’ve learned that some episodes may be fictional, I’m inclined to question the IUD episode. How much is truthful? How much manufactured? 

Given how important an honest discussion about IUDs is, should listeners be wondering what’s true and what’s not? 

Rob Rosenthal
(Lead instructor, Transom Storytelling Workshop; Producer, “How Sound”)


“To quote Teddy Roosevelt, ‘Do what you can, with what you have, where you are.'”

Just wanted to chime in. 

I quite agree that manufactured sound has no place in any piece that’s presented as news, though of course it’s fine in history, fiction or drama.

In my opinion, using only sound that’s recorded on location in a news feature or doc is a matter of trust and transparency. 

But instead of letting this constraint cramp your style, challenge yourself to use the sound that you do legitimately have access to in the most creative ways possible.

In other words, to quote Teddy Roosevelt, “Do what you can, with what you have, where you are.” 

This week I edited a story about a cartoonist. Not the most sound-rich idea on its face, right? But the reporter recorded the squiggle of a marker on paper, a phone conversation with an editor, the click and whir of the computer sending off a cartoon and calling up Facebook, the cartoonist describing a drawing, climbing the steps to the his office, and the wind chimes in his house. All quite serviceable, taking the listener there and moving the story along. 

Thanks, everyone, for this discussion – it’s healthy and useful. 

Leda Hartman
(Editor, NPR’s “Latino USA”)


I’m intrigued by the distinction …  between news and documentary, was … surprised when Brooke made that distinction, and was wishing I’d had the chance to ask her about it.

To me the question would still arise: What kind of documentary and what expectations will the listener have? I don’t see them as different beasts ethically, unless somehow a different set of standards is conveyed one way or another.

— John Biewen 
(Audio program director, Center for Documentary Studies at Duke University)


I am currently editing a story about an animal wildlife rehabilitation center in northern Wisconsin.

Of course on arrival, I’m anticipating all kinds of great sounds because I knew there were 10 bears there and several eagles as well as many other animals.

If I’d gotten there two weeks earlier, I would have gotten the bears tussling over the food but when I recorded, they were not eating as much and would soon be released to den up for the winter in the wild. No bear sounds. Ne eagle sounds. The only animal sound I got was the quiet wheezing of a duck as it tried to breath. There were maybe 50 animals in residence at the time. 

I did get food pans being filled, cage doors opening, the phone ringing with a rescue call and equipment sounds.

There was not one sound from an animal even when being administered subcutaneous liquid, being tube fed, getting injections, anticipating feeding. And the conversation when this was happening was in whispers so as to not disturb nor imprint the animals. 

This story will have no animal sounds in it and it’s about injured animals being rehabilitated. …

I did a story about mustang horses and burros from out West being adopted in Wisconsin. Again — not one sound from the horses as they were being looked at by people for the two days of adoption — until it came time to separate them and load each up. Even then, very little.

I was there for hours and hours for a three-minute story to get ONE good horse whinny, one galloping sound and few snorts as well as one vocalization from a burro.

Animals do not make sounds on demand and so my mic luckily was on and no one was talking at that second. 

I began the piece with that one good horse whinny as the Bureau of Land Management man talked about having been on a round-up out west. That sound came from a wild horse at that site, but was it unauthentic to indicate these wild horses make a lot of sounds when for the most part it was quiet and the sound didn’t come from a round-up?

It’s good to question and keep questioning

Here is that story about the wild horse and burro adoption.

Nancy Camden
(Producer, “Spotting Wisconsin”)


“Does anyone else find a ‘generation gap’ when it comes to standards and ethics?” 

Interesting discussion, y’all.  I’ll stand next to John and hold hands with Joe [Richman] on the continuum of real reality sound.

I make documentaries for a newsroom now and I am held to a news standard whether I like it or not.

Here’s another thing: At the beginning of each semester, I have my interns review the last documentary. 

I’m intrigued to read that they often don’t know what is happening with the audio, can’t keep track of voices and don’t understand why there is music under the rising action.

Some of what we are discussing is a shared vocabulary among producers of a certain vintage.

Whether it’s that they don’t listen to radio or don’t listen to docs or haven’t studied documentaries, I’m finding that I have to explain what’s happening to them.

Does anyone else find a “generation gap” when it comes to standards and ethics?

Catherine Stifter
(Producer, “The View from Here”)


Nancy, I’ve been there and I feel your pain. But really, are those animal noises so great? As a listener, I’d perk up if a reporter said, “I’m standing next to a crapload of animals but they won’t say a word. Hey, you. Moo. Quack. Nothing. Trust me, folks, the critters are here, staring at me.” Or if you’re not narrating, get the farmer or whoever to say it. It’d be charming, and far less predictable than the squabbling of varmints. 

— John Biewen 
(Audio program director, Center for Documentary Studies at Duke University)



“[Y]ounger people growing up in a completely different media landscape than old fuddy-duddys like me where it’s common to mix and mash media into new things.”

As a longtime journalist from print who is more recently in radio, and TV (the horror), I found the conversation at Third Coast fascinating, and at times, disconcerting.

… I guess I stand more in John’s camp, but what I loved about the panel, and this discussion, is that it made me think and examine my standards and beliefs. That’s always so helpful.

I wasn’t familiar with “Why Oh Why” and was shocked when she said that guy might not be real, and disclosing either way would ruin the vibe of the podcast. But then I realized it’s not really a news product, and the listeners seem to be clued into this little game, so the context, as Brooke said, is all.

As for the generation gap, I will tell you that from the stories I’ve heard from colleagues who teach, plagiarism is a serious issue in all kinds of college classes. I think part of it is a function of younger people growing up in a completely different media landscape than old fuddy-duddys like me where it’s common to mix and mash media into new things.

Anyway, thank you for a really fascinating discussion at Third Coast, because it’s important to keep talking about things like this.

Megan Kamerick
(Independent producer)