Since a bystander’s video uncovered the brutal shooting of a fifty-year-old black man by a North Charleston, South Carolina police officer, the graphic video has been played and replayed by broadcast media too many times to count.
Every time an expert, analyst, relative or the witness/videographer himself, have been interviewed, we see the same horrific images with sound repeated.
When does a tragic video such as this, move from exposing a vital public issue to overexposure?
In my book “What Do You Stand For?” (2004), journalist Matt Seitz discussed a similar issue when broadcast news repeatedly replayed the hijacked planes crashing into New York’s twin towers after 9/11.
“I wrote a column about a week after the attack, about the misuse of images of the towers burning and how they were being shown over and over for no good reason. They would be interviewing an expert on air travel or terrorism or psychology, and they would split the screen, and on one part they’d show the person being interviewed and the other half would show the towers burning! And, this, to me, was obscene.
“Clearly, they were locked in some kind of mode. I mean, they’re all good people. I deal with these people. They’re decent, intelligent people who never would’ve imaged that they were doing something horrible. They were just simply locked in this mode, and they couldn’t seem to get out of it. And I wrote a very angry column about it. I wasn’t saying anything that the public wasn’t already feeling. The important thing is, I was saying what the public was feeling, which is something that everybody in this position should try to do more often.”
Let me be clear: I am not suggesting that the media refrain from telling an important story, or that we should all bury our heads in the sand from dreadful events, pretend away the tragedy. You can’t. You shouldn’t.
But there is a difference between exposing an issue with graphic evidence, as this video clearly does, and saturating our lives with constant replays for days on end of the same video that offers no additional context beyond the original horror: a white police officer murdering an unarmed black man.
Cell phone cameras, social media and surveillance cameras have become both a boon and a bane. They have exposed crimes that might otherwise not have been exposed. With the help of surveillance cameras, the FBI was able to close in on the Boston bombers before they had an opportunity to drive to New York where they planned more killings. However, the price for that exposure can be to over-saturate our psyches causing us, at some point, to become numb to the impact of the original event, or worse still, foster the cynicism that all police are out to harm us.
From a public standpoint, we need to see videos like this because they carry an important responsibility to bring about change. We do not, however, need to have it replayed to the point of abuse.