Whether it's Eric Garner or Ray Rice, raw video drives national conversation

We're living in a new age of video democracy. Can we handle it?

We are a nation being driven by video images.

Not the polished and buffed ones produced and packaged during the TV era by the networks and cable channels to sell cars, beer and cosmetics. But rather the raw, often disturbing ones passing unfiltered from security cameras or the hands of citizens armed with the latest digital technology to our computers, smartphones and TV screens.

If you call the footage of Ray Rice brutally punching his then-fiancee in an elevator shocking, what adjective do you use to describe the images of white police officers taking down and piling on Eric Garner as he repeatedly pleads that he "can't breathe"?

Garner died off-camera on the way to the hospital, we are told, but watching those images of the last moments of his life on the pavement, I felt as though I was witnessing an execution. For all the millions of video sequences I have watched and often written about, that is among the most powerful and troubling I have ever seen. The ISIS videos were far less disturbing to me.

How could people not feel a need to protest in some way what they saw on that video of Garner?

The question is how these video images that instantly blast their way into public consciousness seemingly one after another are changing the way we think and act as a society. There is no doubt they are driving large parts of the national conversation.

"Videos reframe debates," Brian Stelter, CNN senior media correspondent and host of "Reliable Sources," said in an email. "When there's video, the question's less 'what happened' and more 'why did it happen?' Some viewers stop asking questions altogether."

As is usually the case with new technology, our understanding of its social implications is running far behind its widespread acceptance and use.

"As a society, we're just beginning to reckon with the consequences of cameras everywhere," Stelter continued. "Just as still photographs and sound bites can mislead, videos can mislead. But I'm inclined to believe that having more eyes in more places does far more good than harm."

Richard Chisolm, an Emmy Award-winning Baltimore documentary filmmaker and photographer, says he's "torn" about the dramatic way video is affecting national life and thought these days.

"We're moving away from a culture of citizenship and journalism and information gatekeeping. In the 'good old days,' photography itself was edited and carefully packaged before it came to the public. And now, no one's in charge. Let's just say it like that," Chisolm says.

"And so there's a rampant sharing of images and words. But with these raw, primary-source, security-camera views, body-camera views, cellphone videos of controversial life and events, while they are sometimes sensational or emotionally arousing, they may not be the whole story. They are sometimes only a glimpse of something," he adds.

And yet, they are highly appealing, he says, because they offer an instant sense of clarity on major matters of America life that have become the source of confusion and controversy.

"In the case of the recent examples of Ray Rice or Ferguson or now this hideous strangling case, we like those images in a sense because they don't have a lot of equivocation," Chisolm says. "I think we're drawn to things that are not ambiguous. And they become framers of our opinion or solidifiers of our opinion, something we can trust and talk about."

Nsenga Burton, visiting professor of media studies at Clark Atlanta University, says she, too, has mixed feelings about the role video is playing in determining the national conversation.

"I think it's good in the sense that you have these videos that are sparking conversations about things that we might not otherwise see, like domestic violence, or otherwise talk about," Burton said.

"But what's challenging is that because the videos are so readily available and played over and over throughout the media, they can result in some people being desensitized to the type of violence shown."

Burton, founder of the Burton Wire, an online news site focusing on the African diaspora, says in the wake of the second TMZ video showing Rice punching his then-fiancee in the face, she tweeted CNN and asked the channel to stop playing it over and over every few minutes.

"I said it was disrespectful to the victim," she says. "She had a crime committed against her, and she and her family should not have to watch her getting knocked out 50 times in 20 minutes. … Furthermore, I think, the violence seems less and less real to some as it's played over and over and over again."

Talking about grand jury verdicts like the one that failed to indict the police officer who placed Garner in a chokehold, Burton said, "I think that could be a factor in desensitizing juries who see a video of violence played over and over again. That and the pervasiveness of straight-up racism."

The intense repetition throughout the media of such high-visibility videos is another important factor in their cultural power — even beyond the kind Burton mentions.

Not only has technology empowered members of what used to be thought of as a passive audience to become producers of video, technological changes in the newspaper and TV business have left those huge media realms hungry for the kinds of video that can bring tens of millions of viewers and readers to their websites.

And the economics couldn't be sweeter: Most of the videos are free.

I'm not surprised to hear analysts say they are "torn" or have "mixed feelings" about the way videos seem to explode on us almost every day and tear through the culture.

We know our reaction to images is often more visceral and immediate than it is to words. It's simply the way our brains process information received from the different media.

And it is often hard to know what videos do and don't show, as Chisolm explained. What looks like an act of unprovoked violence might turn out to be something quite different if the timeframe of the video were expanded to include the previous 10 seconds and showed the person who is acting violently being threatened by someone.

When the videos come at us virtually unfiltered, one after the other, what the cable channels call a "national conversation" often sounds more like highly polarized people shouting at each other across a cultural divide, using the videos only as evidence for the point of view that they already had.

On the other hand, as painful as it is, I am willing to accept all the problematic aspects of this video explosion to see images like the ones showing what police did to Garner. And having worked in the mainstream media for several decades, I have a feeling a gatekeeper or two might have been able to keep those images from the public even 10 years ago.

There's no doubt: Information is more democratic than ever. The question is: Can we handle this kind of unbridled video democracy?

david.zurawik@baltsun.com

twitter.com/davidzurawik

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