There’s little doubt that in the last two years or so, streaming video and smartphones have had a pivotal role in raising awareness of seemingly undefensible shootings of black people by police officers. But in the wake of what went on last night in Dallas, at some point consumers of media must reconsider how they digest graphic video footage.
It is hard to believe, given how invasive video is today, that on Sept. 11, 2001, there was relatively no citizen video of that event unfolding. Smartphone video didn’t really exist. A CBS documentary in 2002 showed footage of the first plane hitting the North Tower--that had never been seen before. It was filmed by a French crew that just so happened to be shooting a documentary about new recruits who had had just joined a New York Fire Department station house near the towers.
The other visuals--the burning, smoking buildings and the collapse of South Tower-- were shown live and are only too easily recalled. It’s horrible to watch.
It is instructive to note that within a few days or weeks, stations and networks quit rolling that footage every time there was a new 9/11 story. It bothered people, and it opened network newscasts up to charges that they were showing what amounted to news porn. It was exploitive.
The Dallas sniper fire that killed five officers there has been well documented, even in just these few hours after the fact, and in varying ways, so have the other of the deaths of black civilians by police officers all over the nation. We do see it over and over. It has gotten redundant. And rampant, and almost cliche. (YouTube is already loaded with UGC video from Dallas.) Somewhere, there’s a president, a mayor, a governor, offering “thoughts and prayers” and then it happens once again. Or, for other kinds of mayhem, there are these familiar memes: School kids running away from their classrooms. Bloody pedestrians dazed after a bombing. Rinse and repeat.
Are these constant shocks useful? Harmful? When do endless loops of grieving moms or the “pop-pop-pop” of real gunfire go from news to a kind of national sadistic voyeurism?
It is so important that in Minnesota, Diamond Reynolds had the almost journalistic presence to immediately stream to Facebook Live when a police officer shot her fiance four times, after stopping his car for a broken tail-light. It is one of the most painful pieces of reality TV you will ever see. But after you’ve seen that video twice, three times, a dozen times, isn’t it just enough?
Watching Jack Ruby shoot Lee Harvey Oswald was the first time in the video age that many millions of Americans saw real, live video of a real murder. (It’s in the Guinness Book of World Records, under “first murder on television,” I’ve just discovered.) Now, live or fairly instantly on video, we see it all from shootings to beheadings, if we choose.
Forget about injustice for a moment. Is this good for our mental health?
On Facebook, Mark Zuckerberg made a sympathetic statement about the shooting of Philando Castile, and the Baton Rouge shooting the day before, of Alton Sterling.
“The images we've seen this week are graphic and heartbreaking, and they shine a light on the fear that millions of members of our community live with every day. While I hope we never have to see another video like Diamond's, it reminds us why coming together to build a more open and connected world is so important -- and how far we still have to go,” Zuckerberg wrote.
Mostly, comments on Zuckerberg’s post were positive. One mother, however, hinted at the cumulative effect of seeing these videos over and over, as she feared following 9/11 when her 17-year old daughter was “glued” to TV for a week..
“The shock for me as a mother was how I could instantly help her through these tragedies. No one was prepared,” she wrote. “Today tragedy is in front of us constantly by mobile.”
That’s more than a fact. It’s become a condition.