Searching for Truth in a World of Death, Violence & Media Voyeurism

Rebel fighters in Libya capture a tank.

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.)

This entry was posted in Afghanistan, China, First Amendment, Freedom of Information Act, Libya, Media, Sensationalism, Videos, Violence, War and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to Searching for Truth in a World of Death, Violence & Media Voyeurism

  1. Pingback: Graphic Images: Burying Gaddafi’s Corpse or Putting it on the Front Page? | Sutradhar's Market

  2. Dan says:

    I am all for the graphic content, because it shows the barbarity of our CIA-backed “rebels” and sets the tone for how they are most likely to govern in the future.

    It was these graphic depictions of war that helped push the U.S. to withdraw from Vietnam. Everyone remembers the picture of the little girl running down the road covered in napalm, even if most of us don’t remember the person who took the picture.

    The larger issue that the mainstream media seems to have missed though, is the double standard that this footage brings up. Thousands of civilians were killed by NATO in this latest assault. How many of them got shown on TV? And how many photos have the networks shown of white phosphorus attacks in Fallujah? It’s basically napalm with one chemical component changed in order to get around the ban on it, and it melts your flesh to your bones. There is photo evidence of it on the internet, but you have to dig.

    So, the rule seems to be that graphic violence is only acceptable for the networks when it fits in with the story they’re trying to portray. We’ve spun a pretty good tale about a dictator that was hated by his people and conveniently left out the massive demonstrations in support of him in his own country (check out RT). So, while the networks don’t mostly go in for that kind of violence, the home video of Gadhafi’s lynching was just a little gravy to drizzle on that story and help it go down better.

  3. thejohnjeff says:


    I am so glad you wrote about this media trend, especially after reports of Gaddafi’s death. I was APPALLED at some of the video I saw of him being dragged on the street. While I support freedom of information, I believe such content should be restricted to mediums that allow users to select the content they would like to watch…much like was the case when videos of Sadaam Hussein’s hanging surfaced.

    You bring up a great point that audiences are captivated by this sort of violence and I think you are totally correct that we have become so desensitized that such displays of violence are the only way to capture our attention and we are even becoming desensitized by these scenes to the point that they are becoming more and more graphic.

    Its issue like this that illustrate what I think is a distinctly American double-standard of calling foul on a Janet Jackson nipple-slip when such graphic displays of violence are pumped into our homes on a nightly, if not hourly, basis. If I had to choose whether my future children had to view an accidently display of a private part of the human body versus the body of a man (albeit a cruel despot) being dragged through the street begging for his like I would choose the former. It would be significantly easier to explain.

    I’ll end on a humorous note courtesy of Helen Lovejoy.

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