In this lecture, Lord Puttnam once again covered a large range of topics, including a brief history of documentary on film, the recent spate of biopics and their success, the erosion of the public/private divide and the increased prevalence of info-tainment, and the ubiquitous presence of violence in news media, as well as the desensitization associated with reports of violence. For this entry, I want to discuss news programmes and ethical obligations, and look at how viewers have been affected by witnessing increasingly graphic (and racialised) violence on television news, and over social media. I will also very briefly look at attempts by TV series to comment upon real-world issues, and the representative problems associated with creating works that are analogous/allude to contemporary social problems.
In the 24-hour news cycle, there is constant pressure to push the most salacious, emotive and polarizing stories to the forefront of daily coverage. Speaking (very generally) about American news media, there is an emphasis on what will cause the most immediate emotional reaction: stories that provoke visceral responses and appear to have simple causes and effects, stories which shock, or ignite fear and revulsion. The sensationalized and almost cavalier reporting of acts of police terror, violence and brutality, the actions, lives, and records of victims, and the manner in which these incidents are framed has been repeatedly highlighted over the past few years (the examples listed are from right-wing news stations, but similarly so-called progressive sites such as Mic.com report on these incidents in a sensationalized and shallow way in order to get clicks). With the widespread use of social media and the availability of technology that allows ordinary citizens to record incidents of police brutality/abuse by authorities, American news media has increasingly taken to showing a continual stream of acts of police brutality and violence, daily and nightly. These videos are usually first spread on Facebook, Tumblr and Twitter, which are platforms that provide little in the way of filters for graphic content (trigger warnings are usually added at the poster’s own discretion), apart from Twitter controls that allow the user to stop video autoplay on their timeline. Videos like these can be important tools for spreading awareness, rallying protesters and organisational efforts and marches; for exposing police forces’ structural and ideological violence; and for some, depending on their politics and views on the extent of permissible violence, for ‘validating’ victims of police brutality (activists and advocates against police brutality are usually required/demanded to prove victims’ ‘worthiness’ and moral virtue, and construct victims that can be comfortably reduced to palatable ‘characters’, erasing the dimensions of their humanity and employing the rhetoric of respectability politics).
Often, videos are posted in an effort to show that there was no attempt at de-escalation, that the victim was co-operative and polite, that the police did not act within the bounds of the law, the victim was a person who should not have died, and, in the aftermath of violence, a person who should now receive justice for their death.
These viral videos, and accompanying hashtag campaigns and protests, allow for the act of naming, or can be seen as bringing to light the bodies and faces and voices of people whose deaths would otherwise be blithely accepted, whose names would be immediately erased, and who would remain a statistic. Ideally, viral videos of police brutality allow the cultural and media narrative to be restructured and disrupted, even if only on a social media platform; in the realm of public discourse, they serve as documentary proof and incontrovertible evidence: a correction to official accounts, a counter-narrative, a resistance, acts of surveillance not utilized by the carceral state, but technology taken into ordinary people’s hands, that can be used to hold authority in some way accountable.
These videos, and their widespread dissemination and millions of loops and views, are constantly featured in news broadcasts, and questions of framing and desensitization must be asked.
In a hypercompetitive news media – driven by capital and dependent on advertising – inflammatory rhetoric, calls for journalistic ‘objectivity’ which actively cater to demagogues and provide platforms for fascist ideas, loud debates, and disingenuous claims of a commitment to bringing viewers unfiltered truth – are routine. The widespread broadcast of these videos, often played on a loop in the background of a talking head debate or featured in short ads for upcoming segments (broadcast without warning), must be critiqued. A pertinent question is, as Feliks Garcia notes, who does broadcasting this violence serve (‘Police brutality is modern lynching – and you may be part of it’)? Other questions to consider: does broadcasting these videos bring about justice (usually not, and police convictions are rare), does it get the police officers responsible fired? Does it move us, to anger, to shame, to action? Does broadcasting these videos confront the public with the effects of a pervasive and institutionalized White supremacy, the consequences of militarization of police forces across America, with the ways in which Black and Brown Americans are subject to surveillance, intimidation, and unlawful force, how they are targets of agents of White kyriarchy, how their bodies are constructed in the social imaginary as inherently aggressive, and as ‘things’ that must be contained?
I would argue that the vast majority of major American news networks, which are fueled by profit, are subsidiaries of larger corporations, and are often beholden to an ideologically incoherent and passive notion of the importance of ‘objectivity’ (or are just outright right-wing), are not platforms that allow for meaningful and critical dialogue about these violent and disturbing videos; there is not enough critical analysis or time. And, as YM Carrington notes here, these viral videos generate capital, which gives corporations reason to sell ‘anti-black violence as a product’ (‘Trauma and Spectacle: Antiblack Violemce and the Media’).
So it can be argued that constantly broadcasting these videos and images turns racialized death and Black pain into another product to consume, just as society consumes other facets of Black life while disregarding Black people and racism – and viewers/consumers must contend with a desire to feel engaged and informed, and simultaneously with a feeling of desensitization, of weariness and apathy towards a constant barrage of stories, and an uneasiness with engaging in this process of consumption, in blithely accepting the spectacle of these stories, the ways in which they are carelessly framed and shared. The continual looping of the moment a rain of bullets enter a man’s body, of a young girl being dragged across the grass, of a man choking to death on a sidewalk, are often talked about as being necessary and important for the public to see, for us to understand and believe in these deaths. This is too reductive an argument: viewers are confronted with violence, relentlessly and unexpectedly and accompanied by increasingly inflammatory and racist rhetoric, with little empathy, and this witnessing occurs in a culture where race is seen as static/immutable/indicative of morality and behavior, or best not talked about, and there is little inclusion of even moderately progressive views (never mind genuine radical praxis and the politics of liberation, which may be incompatible with news discourse that requires one to tone down their politics). This type of coverage does not serve (most importantly) the victims or their families (who often protest against their relatives’ deaths being shown) and does little to help viewers truly understand the situation, beyond providing a certain initial shock. Viewers may even be becoming desensitized to seeing acts of real violence, as it is so easily accessible. Videos alone will not necessarily lead people to believe that a wrong was committed against police brutality victims: the ideology of White supremacy is built into every institution in America, is taught and reinforced and legitimized, and saturates mainstream American politics and speech, and effects how people perceive even documentary video evidence. Viral videos, grainy and shaky and cutting off abruptly, or clear and crisp and captured with the best resolution, often do not on their own convince people of a victim’s innocence, or right to not die; if they already see Black people as inherently dangerous, if they remain convinced that they must have done something, that they maybe talked back too much, then it may happen that no amount of footage will convince them that their death was unjustified.
The videos of these deaths are important to see, in one sense: they are proof, proof of force and of a deeply poisonous culture and ideology ingrained into American policing since its formation. But the framing of the discourse around them, how these images are talked about, and how the television audience is coerced and instructed to feel about them, is equally important. Black bodies become just that: bodies. People are stripped of their identity; all they are is a figure falling in a field, a victim to be shown in death only, in the moments where they bleed out or stop speaking. We must ask whose bodies do we find it acceptable to see on the ground, and what effect this has on viewers, and who do we presume these viewers are; as shocking as these images are to all people who see them, there has been recent research conducted on the effects that the broadcast of this pervasive violence is having on Black Americans – it is a collective trauma. They are confronted everyday with footage of more death, happening to people who look like them, or their sister, or cousin, or father. The effect of seeing these deaths, decontextualized and constantly present/seemingly inescapable, is significant. Many Black Americans have described experiencing some form of post-traumatic stress disorder after watching these videos, and the necessity of taking breaks from the news and practicing self-care. Much of contemporary visual media is saturated with images of what could potentially happen to them, of the possibility of death. Some writers have described the continuous broadcast of these deaths as a type of spectacle, and the never-ending broadcast of violence and death as a kind of social control; lynchings were large public events, and now videos of men and women and children being assaulted or killed become a form of entertainment, provide forbidden thrills; on TV channels, there is a certain sick fascination with watching and dissecting these videos in a cavalier and combative way, as talking heads argue over whether she reached for the officer first or whether he said something aggressive just before the incident. Of course, these videos are never presented as entertaining, or funny, or in any way enjoyable to watch – but there is an alarming insensitivity in the discussion of these videos, in TV networks’ insistence on broadcasting these videos on a loop.
Lord Puttnam talked about the dangers of not feeling enough, of the media not doing their job, of stories becoming sensationalized – the ways in which the media positions the tragedy of police brutality, the ways in which fictional shows take these topical issues and address them – sometimes in an incredibly tone-deaf way, in a way that masquerades as progressive or even-handed but really reinforces ideas about the mutual victimhood of killer and victim – and the ways in which we spread and consume images must be examined and reflected upon. We as viewers must query: how do we use social media and how do we consume television news? While individual choices in this regard may ultimately seem meaningless and performative (beyond signing petitions or writing letters or joining online campaigns), and there is little to stop corporations from continuing their exploitation of tragedy, what can occur is a more mindful approach to how we ourselves spread news. We can inform ourselves without recklessly spreading videos in an nonconstructive manner, we can be mindful of people’s limits and their pain, we can have a more critical conversation about how we talk about these incidents, the language we use, and encourage the news sources we get the information from to make better and more sensitive editorial choices; we can condemn the perpetrators without equivocation, and we should be mindful of the line between informing ourselves and acts of productive remembrance, naming and organizing, and a prurient and voyeuristic interest in racialised death and pain, buying into the spectacle of violence that cares little for victims, their families or the trauma of people of colour.
Downs, Kenya. ‘When Black Death Goes Viral, It can trigger PTSD-Like Trauma’. PBS Newshour, 22 July 2016, http://www.pbs.org/newshour/rundown/black-pain-gone-viral-racism-graphic-videos-can-create-ptsd-like-trauma. Accessed 24 July 2016
Garcia, Feliks. ‘Police brutality is modern lynching – and you may be a part of it’. The Daily Dot, 20 April 2015, www.dailydot.com/via/black-men-police-violence-lynching-internet/. Accessed 12 July 2016.
Adetiba, Liz, and Almendrala, Anna. ‘Watching Videos of Police brutality Can Traumatize You, Especially If You’re Black’. The Huffington Post, 8 July 2016, www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/watching-police-brutality-videos_us_577ee9b3e4b0344d514eaa5d. Accessed 19 July 2016.
Dwyer, Liz. ‘The Collective Trauma Of Watching Black Lives End’. Take Part, 7 July 2016, www.takepart.com/article/2016/07/07/racism-and-black-ptsd. Accessed 10 July 2016.
Attiah, Karen. ‘How black people can emotionally protect themselves in the age of #BlackLivesMatter’. The Washington Post, July 2015,www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/post-partisan/wp/2015/07/24/how-black-people-can-emotionally-protect-themselves-in-the-age-of-blacklivesmatter/?utm_term=.d0c259fbef7e. Accessed 12 July 2016.
Media Matters Staff. ‘Megyn Kelly on Sandra Bland Case. “Even If You Know The Cop Is Wrong, Comply and Complain Later”‘. Media Matters, 23 July 2015,www.mediamatters.org/video/2015/07/23/megyn-kelly-on-sandra-bland-case-even-if-you-kn/204571. Accessed 14 July 2016.
Media Matters Staff. The Five On Samuel DuBose’s Death During A Traffic Stop: “People Have To Realize You Can’t Resist Arrest”‘. Media Matters, July 30 2015, 201, www.mediamatters.org/video/2015/07/30/the-five-on-samuel-duboses-death-during-a-traff/204697. Accessed 15 July 2016.
Media Matters Staff. Fox’s Mark Fuhrling Says “Alton Sterling Has To Take Responsibility” For His Own Death At The Hands Of Cops’. Media Matters, 6 July 2016, www.mediamatters.org/video/2016/07/06/fox-s-mark-fuhrman-says-alton-sterling-has-take-responsibility-his-own-death-hands-cops/211399. Accessed 15 July 2016