Huntsberger: Qualified Expectations of Audio Reality

Radio journalists know there is an ethical line between the editing of audio that improves a story and editing of audio that distorts the truth. However, it isn’t always easy to articulate the rationale by which we judge the differences. Michael Huntsberger of Furman University provides that rationale in the “Q-EAR Theory.”

Q-EAR: An Ethical Framework for Digital Audio Production

Michael Huntsberger, Ph.D.
Department of Communication Studies
Furman University

The Challenge Posed by New Technologies

While those on the production side are well aware that the sounds on radio may not be absolutely authentic, the same may not be true for the audience. Radio has always relied on skilled storytelling and editing to enhance the power and authority of the listening experience. In the days of analog tape recordings, close editing was difficult and time consuming. Contemporary digital technologies allow producers to manipulate every quality of recorded audio in minute detail with a few clicks of a mouse.

In an industry where sophisticated technology is the norm, and transparent editing is widely accepted, the generalized directives found in professional codes of ethics to accuracy, consistency, and the “essence” of an event are too vague to guide ethical judgments. The potential for misrepresentation, manipulation, and fabrication in digital audio production requires a more substantive approach to decision-making.

The Ethical Basis for Q-EAR

Communication ethicist Thomas Bivins asserts that ethical decision-making begins with the recognition of the producer’s obligations to the individuals and agencies that benefit from the production:

  • Suppliers provide the “raw material’ of the audio program. These include the subjects of news stories, individuals who act as sources of information, and agencies that provide access to subjects and sources.
  • Providers facilitate the production and distribution of programming. These include radio stations, networks, and syndication agencies, and individuals such as news directors and program directors.
  • Receivers are the listeners, or more generally the target audience for the program, or the community of service.

To each of these constituencies, the producer makes a promise of fidelity – that the content of the finished production is a fair, accurate, and appropriate representation of sonic events, offered in good faith to serve the requirements, needs, and interests of the constituents. In the case of a news package, the obligation of fidelity is reinforced by professional codes of ethics, which place a premium on the high standards for accuracy and fairness required by the tenets of journalism.

Journalism scholar Thomas Wheeler proposes a hierarchy of ethical responsibility based on the “implied authenticity” of content in the context of the presentation. Media constituents “bring a certain expectation of reality” to any piece of content, and “this expectation may be qualified” by the context of the content. Wheeler calls this framework the “qualified expectation of reality.” Within the craft of audio production, the producer is obligated to fulfill the qualified expectations of suppliers, providers, and receivers. At the same time, the producer needs the editorial flexibility to employ the capabilities of digital audio technologies when they can enhance the informative, educational, or entertaining qualities of a production in a manner consistent with ethical obligation of fidelity. These considerations form the basis for the Qualified Expectation of Audio Reality – the Q-EAR framework.

The Q-EAR Framework

Different audio contexts imply different levels of authenticity. News quotes, press conferences, and live reports imply stricter standards of authenticity and more stringent obligations to fidelity than documentaries, studio productions, or advertising. Ethical decisions in digital audio production begin when the producer frames the raw audio material in the Q-EAR hierarchy, ranging from news quotes and audio transcriptions through interviews, news packages, and documentary features. Each step down in the hierarchy acknowledges the variations in the medium’s “basic grammar” that are most widely understood and accepted by producers, suppliers, provider, and receivers.

Strict < ———————-Expectations of Authenticity————————-> Flexible
Live News – News Quotes – Interview – Studio Produced – Documentary – Ads

When working with news quotes, producers routinely edit raw audio to remove interruptions, repetitions, and ‘ums” and “ahs” to enhance the clarity of content. Similarly, technologies such as equalization and overdubbing have been part of the producer’s toolbox for decades. These established techniques are acceptable within the Q-EAR framework.

In contrast, more sophisticated techniques such as temporal re-sequencing, dynamic compression, time compression, and voice modeling infringe on the reasonable expectations inherent in the context of most news productions, and are not widely understood or interpreted as conventional news applications. Consequently, the Q-EAR framework limits the producer’s choices to selecting key quotes, editing for clarity, and performing simple equalization to conform to the expectation of radio news constituents.

The Q-EAR for documentary content is more flexible. Documentary producers regularly employ layers of sound and a range of technical enhancements to create a collage of sonic events to engage the listeners’ imagination. While such production techniques alter the temporal relationship of events, the resulting collapse of time allows the audience to understand and appreciate the relationship of sonic events that may have occurred hours or days apart in real time. These alterations enhance the listener’s comprehension within the qualified expectations of the documentary form. Similarly, the documentary producer may be faced with sonic environments in the field that are confusing and chaotic. Presented with a batch of contemporaneous sound files, the producer may have to edit and mix elements from separate narration and ambient sound files in a manner that conveys an accurate account of events without distortion.

In these cases, the producer needs to guard against choices that may misrepresent the subjects, events, and circumstances depicted in the final presentation. Working within the Q-EAR framework forces the producer to confront the fundamental question in digital production: Is this audio misleading?

Suggested readings

Bivins, T. (2004). Mixed Media: Moral distinctions in advertising, public relations, and journalism. Mahwah: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

RTE Programme-makers’ guidelines(2002). [Brochure]. Dublin: Radio Telefís Éireann. Retrieved January 8, 2008.
Sculler, D. (Ed.). (2005, December).

The safeguarding of the audio heritage: Ethics, principles and preservation strategy (Version 3). Retrieved January 8, 2008, from International Federation of Library Associations and Institutions website.

Shingler, M., & Wieringa, S. (1998). On air: Methods and meanings of radio. London: Arnold.