Does Removing Tragic Content Diminish The Public’s Desire To Stop Tragedies?
from the challenging-policy-decisions dept
We’ve written a couple times about Andy Parker, whose story is truly tragic. His daughter, a local TV news reporter, was murdered on air by a former colleague, in the middle of a live news broadcast. Truly horrific stuff. Parker has now spent years trying to remove the video of his daughter’s murder from social media. We first wrote about him in response to a very weird 60 Minutes episode, in which they used Parker’s story as an example of how social media websites like YouTube were unwilling to take down damaging content… even though the very same report admitted that YouTube not only has taken down that video repeatedly, but that it now prioritizes reports about that video and certain other content to remove as quickly as possible.
We also had another, more recent, story about how some very sketchy lawyers had effectively misled Parker into believing that if he created NFTs out of the shooting video, that would somehow get companies to be more willing to remove it from their platform faster (which is just nonsense). Indeed, given that he does not hold the copyright on that video, it is possible that creating the NFTs potentially would land him in some copyright difficulties with the actual copyright holder, who seemed initially willing to bend over backwards to help Parker, but was (completely reasonably) unwilling to assign the copyright to him.
I thought of this story recently, when listening to a fascinating discussion on a recent On The Media episode, talking with journalism professor Susie Linfield, over whether or not we’d be more likely to see action on gun control if the media actually showed the victims of mass shootings. Linfield also wrote a NY Times op-ed to this effect. She notes that this is certainly not an easy question — and it’s entirely understandable why people like Parker want those images and videos to disappear. Indeed, my gut reaction is that I’d almost certainly feel the same way if a loved one were such a victim. But, there are arguments going the other direction as well, including that by hiding this kind of content, it more or less sweeps some of the underlying problems and horrors under the rug, and allows society to pretend nothing is wrong, or that nothing should be done.
Photographic images can bring us close to the experience of suffering — and, in particular, to the physical torment that violence creates — in ways that words do not. What does the destruction of a human being, of a human body — frail and vulnerable (all human bodies are frail and vulnerable) — look like? What can we know of another’s suffering? Is such knowledge forbidden — or, alternately, necessary? And if we obtain it, what then?
These are questions that are being raised in the wake of last week’s mass shooting of 19 children and two adults in Uvalde, Texas, which has plunged much of the country into an abyss of sorrow, rage and despair. On social media and in the press, some, including the former homeland security chief Jeh Johnson, have suggested that photographs of the slaughtered children, whose faces and bodies were apparently mutilated beyond recognition, be released to the public in hopes of garnering support for gun control legislation.
Of course, as Linfield makes clear, there are no easy answers here on either side of the debate. There are a few examples of photographic evidence giving “history a nudge,” but there are also examples of how being exposed to such imagery — especially around someone you knew — is traumatizing as well. And, also, the impact of these images may not be what anyone expects… or wants.
There are many examples of photographs that gave history a nudge — sometimes even a vigorous one. Think of the My Lai massacre photographs, of the Abu Ghraib torture photos taken by American troops and of Darnella Frazier’s phone video of George Floyd’s murder. But just as the Till photograph didn’t end Jim Crow, the My Lai images didn’t end the Vietnam War (nor did press reports of the atrocity), the Abu Ghraib photographs didn’t end the Iraq war (or even lead to high-level prosecutions), and the Floyd video didn’t end police brutality. These photographs did support, encourage and strengthen public perceptions, political movements and public debates that were already in play. But none resulted in the kinds of immediate change that their supporters hoped for. When it comes to images, there are few Damascene moments, which is why most photojournalists are modest, if not pessimistic, about the influence of their work.
And viewers who look to photographs to effect political change should be careful what they wish for: Formulating political decisions on the basis of images can be treacherous. Photographs of skeletal Somalis dying of hunger — those by James Nachtwey are particularly brutal — were one of the key inspirations for the U.S.-United Nations intervention in Somalia in late 1992; less than one year later, Paul Watson’s horrific photograph of a gleeful crowd dragging an American soldier’s naked corpse contributed to our hasty retreat. (The Somali debacle was a major reason for the Clinton administration’s refusal to respond to the Rwandan genocide the following year.)
Still, it is a reason to think more deeply about this beyond assuming that the “obvious” right answer is to pull down such gruesome content. Linfield argues that, at the very least, perhaps a middle ground is that politicians debating gun control should see the images, if not the public:
Despite the very real dangers of exploitation and misuse that disclosure of the Uvalde photographs would pose, I myself would like politicians to view them: to look — really look — at the shattered face of what was previously a child and to then contemplate the bewildered terror of her last moments on earth. But that would not mean that the jig is up. People, not photographs, create political change, which is slow, difficult and unpredictable. Don’t ask images to think, or to act, for you.
Of course, this isn’t necessarily a new debate. For years, we’ve talked about how YouTube was pressured to take down “terrorist” content, and the result was YouTube shuttering the account of human rights groups documenting war crimes.
It’s not easy to know where or how to draw these kinds of lines. If the content leads to real change, maybe that’s useful, but it can also cause real harm. At the same time, there are arguments for having it available to researchers and archivists, rather than hiding it from history as well.
Again, I don’t have a good answer to this, other than to note that it’s a lot more complicated than people often make it out to be. Many people insist that there’s an obvious answer here — and often that “obvious” answer is that the content must be taken down. But, as Linfield’s discussion makes clear, it’s not that simple at all.