(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.
Dan Gillmor’s commentary on the Wikileaks #cablegate release takes the form of a series of questions — questions for governments, for Julian Assange, for the media, and even for Sarah Palin. The questions form a thought-provoking analysis of the larger context of Wikileaks — is the US government right to stamp “Secret” on every bit of gossip it sees? Is Wikileaks prepared for disinformation leaks? When will Wikileaks dump the diplomatic cables of a secretive, totalitarian state like China or Syria? Why hasn’t the press been getting at this stuff on its own, and what kind of deals are news outlets cutting with Wikileaks in exchange for access? Will the Wikileaks organization ever be as transparent as it is forcing the US government to become?
For journalists who get the documents directly from WikiLeaks:
* You are treating WikiLeaks as much as a partner as a source, no matter how much you might deny this. How comfortable are you in this bargain?
* Why does it take WikiLeaks to get the information you agree is so worthy of public exposure? Why aren’t you doing your own jobs better in the first place?
* Why aren’t you stressing, in your voluminous coverage, that these cables are not the final word on what has happened. They are often pure gossip. Do you have an obligation to provide more context for the material you’re publishing and discussing?
(Update) For Sarah Palin, who (or, perhaps, a staffer) tweeted today: “Inexplicable: I recently won in court to stop my book “America by Heart” from being leaked,but US Govt can’t stop Wikileaks’ treasonous act?”:
* Treason is an act against one’s own country. Are you aware that WikiLeaks is not based in the United States, and that Assange is not a U.S. citizen?
* Are you saying you could have stopped Web and newspaper reports from other countries with U.S. court order? Can you find even one lawyer who agrees?
A few questions about the WikiLeaks release
(Image: Wikileaks #cablegate Process Documentation, a Creative Commons Attribution (2.0) image from blprnt’s photostream)