by Corey Smith
Depictions of violence and even death are oftentimes sensitive subjects to broach. However, when viewed under the lens of the media, these topics gain a unique sense of importance in that audiences can be extremely receptive, perhaps even desensitized to videos and images they may initially shy away from.
In the past week alone, there have been a number of incidents that demonstrate how audiences worldwide are captivated by scenes of violence or death. The first story to spread worldwide was in regard to a two-year-old Chinese child who was struck by a van and then virtually ignored by passersby. A surveillance video, posted online by Chinese video site Youku, captured the incident and accompanied much of the international coverage. In addition to appearing on widely read news websites like The Washington Post and The Times of India, YouTube carried multiple versions of the video, one of which had more than half a million views.
Responses to the story were passionate. The Asia Times ran a piece detailing how many Chinese citizens criticized the morality of China, pointing fingers at a declining sense of humanity in the country. The subsequent outcry following this video presents one way in which the media can assist in promoting moral behavior. The worldwide exposure and heavy criticism of this incident may very well serve as a universal example for a number of cultures that deal with an apathetic citizenry.
Other times, media can play the role of the voyeur and entertain the desire of audiences to view death and violence. This can be witnessed most recently in coverage of the death of Muammar Gaddafi, who was wounded in Libya, then captured by rebel forces. Mere minutes after this initial announcement, a cell phone video surfaced on The Guardian website displaying what appeared to be Gaddafi’s body, bloodied and dirty. This process has been seen before and documented in the media: incidents such as the hanging of Saddam Hussein and the dragging of dead American soldiers through the streets of Somalia.
There are two motivations at work here. It seems one can either defend the portrayal of graphic videos and images under the reasoning that it sets a moral example or under the desire of audiences to actually witness and partake in the visual confirmation of violence and death. These may seem extreme, but I think the aspect that links them both explains why we feel more comfortable viewing such content in international media: pure news value.
Gaddafi is a globally recognizable figure, much like Saddam Hussein, and therefore his prominence allows him to be subject to more exploitive media coverage like widespread video documentation of his death. The child in China, though not a prominent figure, is subject to more international media coverage due to the unique situation she was involved in, particularly after such a vehement response within China itself.
However, the question can still be asked: would audiences be happy to get the same story without the graphic content? The answer is decidedly no. An interesting example of this is the former ban in the United States that barred media coverage of the return of American soldiers’ caskets re-entering the country. Implemented in 1991 at the beginning of the Gulf War (and then lifted in February 2009 during the war in Afghanistan), this ban was eventually found to have no legal grounding and was put to rest at the hands of the Freedom of Information Act. Not only is this decision a testament to the free exercise of journalists under the First Amendment, but it also shows that images, though potentially disturbing or graphic, are important for audiences to be exposed to as it brings to light a more accurate depiction of the truth. And the truth, in in the end, is what we all really want to know.
(The photo is by Nasser Nouri of Egypt via Flickr, using a Creative Commons license.)