It is 6:00, primetime, and CNN is on. A smart looking young woman in black framed glasses is addressing the ISIS violence that is sweeping parts of Iraq, making it’s way closer and closer to the capital. The regime, (which even Al-Queda has parted ways with due to a conflict of interest and the extremism of the ISIS-and that’s saying something) has been is making it’s violence as public as possible. They gained mass media attention about five days ago, when they posted a video of an Iraqi policeman’s head being sawed off. Videos have followed of equal terror, boasting mass executions of soldiers and civilians alike. There is no body count yet, but it is surely somewhere in the hundreds.
The smart lady then opens for the following footage. There is no, “this may be disturbing for some viewers,” preface. There is no, “the following content is graphic.” There is nothing about a mature audience. The screen blacks out slowly, and opens up to the footage. There is a man’s voiceover, deep and smooth, as he describes what is being seen. It feels somewhat like a movie preview. There is suspenseful, instrumental music. There are dramatic pauses. Behind all the fluff runs the footage, horrifying, as a row of men, kneeling and blindfolded in front of a ditch, wait. Behind them, the armed ISIS members pace back and forth. One of the ISIS pauses behind the kneeling man who is closest to the camera. He raises his weapon, and pulls the trigger.
Freeze frame. All the music stops, the picture darkens slightly, and a nifty little graphic highlighting the bullet’s trail (about half a foot) to the back of the man’s head is highlighted in orange, ending with a little impact graphic at the contact point on the victim’s head. “The following footage is too graphic to show you,” the voiceover man finally speaks up.
“Well,” I think as I sit in my living room. “That was close, good thing you didn’t show that extra .2 seconds of video. Now that would have been disturbing. Way to know where to draw the line.”
Cut to yesterday, as I plod slowly along on the gym treadmill for a warm up. In front of me, mounted on a wall is a flat screen playing Fox News, which is also talking about the ISIS crisis. A lady in a red jacket introduces new footage, much like CNN did. I can’t hear it, but I can read the subtitles, and there is once again no warning of graphic or disturbing footage. They proceed to show video taken by ISIS of a group of terrified men, blindfolded and on their knees. They target one man and begin to question him. He is speechless with terror. I can’t convey to you how horrifying it was to watch him being badgered as he tried to find his words, knowing these were the last moments of his life. The footage shows the terrorists toying the the man, placing the barrel of their weapons along his throat.
The video cuts. Back to the woman in the red jacket. “All four men were killed. Unlike previous victims, their identities are known thanks to their families. The man shown searching for words in the video is (insert name), he has a wife and three children….(we’re taking a dramatic pause here)…one of which, is a baby girl.”
Although I had been looking down for most of the video, glancing up to see when the footage would end, I feel completely violated. Not by the situation that has happened to that poor man, but by the exploitation of the media. Between CNN and Fox News’ coverage, violated is the only word that I can think of. The footage was shown to appall me. It was shown to shock. It was shown to capture my attention in a way that doesn’t let me look away, because humans are addicted to this sort of feeling. It gives them a mini adrenaline rush that in some way signals to them that they are alive. It’s been interesting to study sales and marketing, and find so much of it in the news.
I remember when news outlets were doing the same thing with the missing Malaysia airliner. The search footage was voiced over by a man worthy of doing Hollywood previews, there were dramatic shots of helicopter blades in slow motion as a man’s feet hung out the side of the chopper. They even titled it like a movie. And of course we are drawn to this. Human’s love anything they struggle to comprehend, and the mystery of it all makes us, once again, feel somewhat alive. It’s almost impossible not to get sucked in.
I know the arguments, especially when it comes to the ISIS videos being broadcast by the news outlets. The American people need to know. They deserve to know. It opens them up to the realities of what’s going on over there. But, to an extent, I have to disagree. I understand that it takes a whole lot these days to rally Americans to more than just letting out a “that’s terrible,” and going back their warmup on the treadmill. But I argue that it’s circular; that Americans are this way because they are desensitized. Part of that is the individuals fault, but the responsibility also falls into the lap of the media.
It’s not that the footage shouldn’t be shown, it’s the manner and extent to which it is shown. CNN could very well show the footage of the captured men, but did they really need to show the shooting, and freeze frame the end of this man’s life? And then to be so delusional as to think that they shielded their audience from the violence in the video by freezing his death, instead of showing it in real time. I even argue that Fox could have shown the footage of the four men, terrified as they were. But did they really have to continue the three minute video, as ISIS lay down the man on his back and terrorized him?
We as a country need to consider why it is that these news outlets are showing this footage. After a certain point, is it about information, or ratings? Is it about knowledge, or the cheap thrill of your being conscious of your own mortality through other’s sufferings? These are questions we need to be asking. Our nation has become so obsessive about what we put into our bodies (which is great), organic, paleo, green, local, preservative free, but when will we realize that the same should go for our brains? What you take into your mind is just as important as what you take into your body. The brain is even more powerful than the body, and yet we are ignorant to the harm we do by ingesting every little bit of information that thrills us, no matter how base or disgusting.
When it comes to journalism, it is preached to always ask “why.” We need to learn that this applies not just to the journalist, but to the individual absorbing the journalism, as well.