War and video: Some thoughts on the flood of graphic “conflict clips” online
(Bullet holes are seen on the windshield of a car used by insurgents after an attack at Camp Phoenix in Kabul. Ahmad Masood / Reuters)
The Guardian invited me to write a quick opinion piece on the explosion of new sources of graphic online conflict videos, and what that sudden availability of explicit, violent material means for news coverage and for each of us as individual witnesses. Snip:
I do believe that truth is a good thing. And to the extent that the flood of bloody videos pouring out of Egypt, Syria, Bahrain, Libya and elsewhere right now document the truth, they are important. As commercial cable news networks (at least, in the US) evolve into something more like entertainment channels than the news outlets they began as, our access to these ugly streaming truths matters even more. Distant shots of missile drops are less likely to inspire empathy than a YouTube clip of a man in Libya whose lower jaw has just been blown off, who is still shouting for freedom. And yes, that video exists; the tireless Twitter chronicler Andy Carvin at NPR (@acarvin) tweeted it last week, along with many other videos like it. (I don’t know how he does it; I could not keep up his tolerance or his pace.)
But human beings do not have an endless capacity for empathy, and our capacity is less so in the mediated, disembodied, un-real realm of online video. At what point does access to war gore become harmful to the viewer, and at what point do each of us who observe this material for the purpose of reporting the story around it, become numb or begin to experience secondary trauma?
“I keep having to remind myself that we’re bearing witness,” Andy told me recently, when we were discussing how the volume of material was affecting him personally. “Otherwise, I think I would’ve lost my mind.”
“Atrocity Exhibition” (Guardian “Comment is Free” blog, thanks Matt Seaton)
Related: At the Atlantic, Alexis Madrigal has a piece up gathering thoughts on this topic from others around the web today.