Viewer’s bias

Issue 5 2021 Editor's Choice, CCTV, Surveillance & Remote Monitoring, Security Services & Risk Management

CCTV or video from broadcasters is often seen to be an ultimate and objective way of producing evidence to determine whether something is right or not, legal or illegal, or infringes on rules or requirements of some kind. Initially, this was seen to be a major part of strategies of dealing with crime, but has since increasingly crept into other aspects of society.

We are seeing reviews of video footage increasingly in sports and for legal matters besides crime, where an appointed official/referee/manager/umpire is supposed to be able to take an accurate and purely factual judgement based on surveillance or TV footage. Yet many of the decisions that get taken are still extensively debated or contested, whether this may be a CCMA hearing, a court case, a disciplinary committee, or a sports game.

At a recent international rugby match I was watching live on TV, I looked at a replay where a television match official (TMO) had to make a decision about whether a forward pass had been made, in order to allow or disallow a try that had been given by the referee. Watching the video, I thought to myself that it was a really difficult call for the TMO and in fact in my view, it was impossible to determine from the camera angles that were available. However, rather than just say it was impossible to determine from the video available, a decision was made to disallow the try.

Dr Craig Donald

There was a great deal of controversial discussion on news services and social media, of which some indicated that the TMO had been under pressure to avoid being seen as biased in favour of the team representing the country where he came from. This pressure was seen to have been deliberately initiated well before the match by the opposing camp, to create a climate of psychological pressure on the official.

The psychology of interpretation

In other words, the psychology of interpretation, of any interpretation of the video reviews, may have been deliberately influenced. We can’t say whether there really was an intention to create this pressure and we can’t say that if there was that it had an effect on the judgment of the third official. What we can say, is that the official was put into a situation where he had to make a decision without having enough tools, techniques or video angles to make a clear factual judgement in a highly pressurised social environment.

For me, the most simple decision would have been to say that the action on the video analysis was inconclusive or the conditions couldn’t be absolutely determined and to refer back to the decision of the on-field referee. The fact that this option wasn’t taken also speaks to the psychological pressures on the TMO and points to the need to equip officials better for viewing and to define interpretation rules more clearly.

Sports like cricket have addressed this kind of situation relatively effectively by having clear standards against which a video review would overturn an on-field umpire decision. For example, a certain amount of the ball must be hitting the stumps in order to change the on-field umpire decision.

This is not a new phenomenon. I wrote an article in 2008 entitled ‘Video analysis, it is just not cricket’ ( that covered some of these issues that some sports have addressed fairly well since then. The implementation of things like goal line technology and electronic offside checks in football work well because they provide a clearer basis for common comparison along with the right technical support. However, where decision makers have to rely on human behaviour without a computer-resolved parameter line, things get much more difficult.

Different interpretation of the same video

In a situation like the Sandpaper-Gate debacle with the Australian cricketers, where TV coverage showed a number of indicators that were consistent with people committing illegal actions such as concealing the evidence in the front of the pants, body positioning and covering up using a substitute as a distraction, the outcomes may not have been so definite if that was all that was available.

However, the excellent cameramanship by the TV camera operators that picked up the scrap of yellow sandpaper in the player’s hand, along with clear views of associated behaviour provided a compelling case that probably resulted in actions by officials and the confessions that came out of the episode.

There is potential in any situation for different interpretations of behaviour and conditions of interaction and the less that people are trained in their interpretation process, the more potential there is for something to go wrong. Simply, people view the same things from different perspectives, and view different things in the same video clip.

Identifying the facts

Part of my advanced training is to develop a more intensive view of how to look at scenes and video, how to organise an effective analysis and a focus on identifying the facts of the matter. Even among experienced CCTV operators, there are still things that are seen differently or not even noticed at all. And being put into a social role such as being a union or management member may directly impact how the video evidence is interpreted if not managed carefully.

Sensitisation of how to view and training in what to look for and how standards can be applied should be an integral part of any video review function, whether sporting, social or business. Just the use of slow motion replays can have an impact on potential interpretation (see ‘The mind, eye and hand speed and implications for slow motion viewing’ at

The mindset and knowledge of the viewer, as I’ve indicated in some of my conference presentations, has a direct impact on what is seen. As importantly, the psychological perspective and expectations the person brings to the viewing may change what and how things are interpreted. We find, for example, that CCTV operators who commonly have to look for both security and safety related issues may differ in success depending on what they emphasise. For example, safety violations are often easy to spot and can give you good performance figures.

While safety is important, a neglect of identifying crime activity may result in critical hits to the business as well as potential for danger to employees or the public. The danger is that operators then channel themselves only into safety, or Covid-19 type activities. Operators may respond to real or perceived threats from within the community and need to be protected as much as possible from these.

Even the issue of reporting on their security colleagues’ non-performance on the job can create social pressures which will affect their decisions about what they see. And a further consideration is that once someone has made a mistake or hesitated about the correctness of a decision, it makes it even more difficult to have confidence the next time round.

We will increasingly need to manage how operators or officials focus on viewing strategies to ensure we have an effective balance in their psychological orientation to the viewing process. We also need to ensure that they have the tools to do the viewing and analysis properly. Finally, we should ensure the conditions where they can make decisions based on the facts, free from social or political interference.

About Craig Donald

Dr Craig Donald is a human factors specialist in security and CCTV. He is a director of Leaderware which provides instruments for the selection of CCTV operators, X-ray screeners and other security personnel in major operations around the world. He also runs CCTV Surveillance Skills and Body Language, and Advanced Surveillance Body Language courses for CCTV operators, supervisors and managers internationally, and consults on CCTV management. He can be contacted on +27 11 787 7811 or


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