What are the rules on showing people's faces on TV?

I’m watching a (now) old episode of To Catch a Predator on TV. In the show, men who seduced underage girls online in a police sting show up and get interviewed by Chris Hanson, the reporter.

Some appear to be unaware they are on TV and outright say, “I don’t wanna be on TV,” when they learn they are.

Yet, their faces and names are fully used and shown.

Cops also shows nearly everyone’s faces, though I thought I heard they get permission.

What are the rules in these kind of situations?

I don’t have the answer but am interested in it.

Always wondered if you did need permission, why do all these people who appear on Cops give it? Seriously if I had just been arrested by a policeman with a camera crew in tow, the last thing I would be doing is signing a permissison slip to appear on national TV. :confused:

Your basic rules are covered by a concept of “expectation of privacy.” For example if I’m on a bus and snap your picture, there’s virtually nothing you can do about it. A bus is a public place, you have no expectation of privacy, in fact since most public trans systems have video recorders in it, you would even have LESS expectation of privacy than on a public street.

Look at Hazel Frederick, she was on every single episode of the Mary Tyler Moore Show. Who is she? When Mary throws her hat into the air an older woman turns and looks directly into the camera and you get a very clear shot of her face. That is Hazel Frederick. But she has no expectation of privacy walking down a crowded street. But had Hazel raised a stink it would’ve been only too easy to blur out her face. But why should she, as she said “It made me famous”

Now with shows like Cops there is a bit of a difference, why? Because of profit. There are no absolute rules in cases like this. When a news camera takes a photo of a suspect, even though the news makes money, it’s basically viewed as a “public service,” the news that is. But when a show like “Cops” does it, it’s about entertainment value not public service.

My understanding is shows like Cops get consent afterwards, because it’s just easier all the way around. Plus the suspect can get a nominal fee to help pay for an bond or whatever. If the suspect refuses, the show Cops, the show simply throws the footage out and goes on to the next person. (When I say throw it out, I mean they turn it over to the police or DA for potential evidence.

In most cases TV shows whether they are Cops or Candid Camera get concent, because it just saves time and there is so much material unless it is extremely special there is nothing so unique they can’t come up with again and get consent from someone else

And further, isn’t it true that you are allowed to photograph onto private property as long as you are on public property? This seems reasonable when one considers a panoramic shot of a city from the air, where thousands of pieces of private property are included. If it were illegal, how could the laws be written?

Are you saying that there is profit from Cops but not from the Mary Tyler Moore Show?

No, he’s saying that situations on Cops involve an expectation of privacy that MTM did not.

You’d be remiss if you didn’t touch upon appropriation of one’s likeness for commercial gain.

Right, but I guess it explains partly why so many of the Cops criminals are…uh, trashy and desperate looking. I guess they think it’d be “neat” to be on TV or something.

I’m more interested in To Catch A Predator, which features a combination of creepy weirdos that look like creepy weirdos and many who look fairly average.

All of them appear on camera. One guy even pulled his shirt up over his face to hide once he realized it was a TV show that he was on and not the police…and yet they showed his face the whole time.


I think there must be some exception for people who have been CONVICTED of a crime. I used to watch “The first 48” on A&E alot (a fly-on-the-wall show about homocide detectives) and pretty much universally, irregardless of where the show was being filmed, you could tell if someone was ultimately convicted of murder based on whether their face was blurred out.

If they were blurred out it meant they were never charged with the crime, if their face was showed it meant they were eventually convicted. I’ve no idea why this is, I had a theory that it might be that the actually TV footage itself was entered in evidence (it did after all show the entire investigation from the time the homocide detective arrived at the crime scene) so was in the public domain.

But, you would be the big man at the trailer court!

Yes, property does not have – at least as far as it’s been tested in the courts so far – an expectation of privacy or a right of publicity. This doesn’t stop photographers from getting property releases just to cover their bases in a litigious society, but there doesn’t seem to be any precedent saying it’s required or necessary.


That’s from 2005, so perhaps something has worked its way into the courts since then, but nothing that I’m aware of.

edit: Here’s something more recent that addresses some of the issues above, but also has the complication of a trespassing claim.

What you are asking about is the contours of what’s known as the privacy torts: commercial misappropriation, false light, public disclosure of private facts, and intrusion upon seclusion.

This page appears to be a decent summary of this area of law. I think it is fair to say that shows like To Catch a Predator or COPS, in addition to being particularly imbecilic forms of entertainment, are also fraught with the perils of privacy tort litigation.

I’ve noticed that reality-type TV shows have become far more proactive about blurring out the faces of strangers, especially children. Even reruns of Mythbusters have blurred out faces which were not blurred in the original broadcast.

Agreed with COPS, but…why do you call “To Catch a Predator” imbecilic? In my opinion, they provide a valuable service, and while they may “risk litigation” by showing the face of a potential sex offender who demands not to be on TV, I applaud them for doing so anyway. After all, if one of those sick pedophiles lived in your neighborhood, you’d want to know who they were even if they haven’t (yet) been convicted of a crime, am I correct?

This is a question for Great Debates, not GQ, but suffice it to say, we apparently differ on how to deter sex offenders, the rights of neighbors to know, the role of the media in publicizing that information, the role of the media in inducing people with sex crime issues to act or attempt to act on those urges, and so forth.