HomeOpinion & AnalysisVisibility, tragedy and injustice in news media

Visibility, tragedy and injustice in news media

By Phillip Santos

One of the key news values in journalistic practice is proximity. When assignment editors make decisions about which event to cover or story to pursue and publish, one of their key considerations is its proximity to the target audience. Proximity is not just a question of geographical intimacy as it may also assume cultural, ethnic, religious, and national resonances, among other things. This principle works in terms of something along the lines of, “the closer an event or issue is to the lived experiences of the target audience, the more newsworthy it is”.

By the same token, the further away or remote an event or social experience is, the less resonant and newsworthy it is considered.

However, not all distant happenings are excluded from local news diaries. Those distant events that break the threshold of shock, pain and pleasure also make it into the news in far flung locations.

These include, on the one hand, tragic natural disasters such as earthquakes, floods, and famine or man-made crises such as wars, and acts of genocide.

On the other hand, harmless natural spectacles such as the solar eclipse and lunar eclipse as well as those that are man-made such as global sporting events, awards ceremonies, rocket launches and so on, tend to also make it into the news across the world. In most cases, low scale and localised tragedies and experiences of injustice tend to remain a matter for the intimately affected.

However, the compression of time and space spawned by digital media may have reconfigured these dynamics, for events across the world are now only a click away.

The above scenarios notwithstanding, what may significantly change our ideas about what is and what is not relevant to local news media and/or people remotely positioned from news events in far flung settings, is the element of visibility.

In the recent weeks and months, the world has been spellbound by extraordinary events associated with both tragedy and injustice.

For one, the coronavirus pandemic has proven to be a tragic disaster by any standards, having killed at least 500 000 people globally, according to Johns Hopkins University.

Our impressions of this tragedy are largely etched in our minds in visual form thanks to photojournalists, television broadcasts and citizen journalists. From pictures of coffins lined up in a church in Mexico, hundreds of empty graves ready to receive their cargo in Brazil, British Covid-19 patients in intensive care, trucks carrying dead bodies in Italy and New York, large scale fumigation of streets and public transport systems across the world, exhausted and visibly disturbed health workers in Western countries, to images of deprivation and desperation of slum residents in Africa and other parts of the Global South, the news media and citizens continue to show the threat of and devastation caused by Covid-19.

These images also show the dystopic world induced by the disruptive force and deadly threat that Covid-19 is.

They show those experiences that highlight humanity’s resilience and vulnerability, difference and similarity, hope and tragedy in ways that make proximity an inadequate category through which to judge and select the news.

In addition, a 9-minute video clip shot by an ordinary citizen showing the callous killing of an African American man, George Floyd, in as many minutes, brought the world closer to this event in ways unlike previous but similar incidents. As film-maker Ava DuVernay observed, the video clip shows in vivid detail, the killer and his victim in one frame.

Moreover, it shows, at once, the nonchalant, casual, callous and deadly indifference of the killer policeman, as well as the helpless vulnerability, and ironically, the victim’s deferential disposition towards his killer. In his description of the video clip’s shock value, the Floyd family lawyer also noted that once you have seen the video, you cannot unsee it.

These observations speak to the way the video clip forces an intimate relationship between the viewer and the subject of callous violence — George Floyd, the location of the viewer notwithstanding.

The visibility brought to this one man’s last moments as a living human being in the video clip potentially evokes any human being’s revulsion at the sight of injustice.

Such revulsion is arguably triggered by this direct witnessing and vicarious experience of an unjust tragedy.

The ensuing protests against systemic racism and resurgent demands for justice across the world arguably evince the breach of proximity as a spatial barrier to expressions of empathy for strangers suffering injustice.

News media from across the world could not ignore this one story given its resonance with the human instinct of empathy towards other people’s experience of injustice.

This cannot be wholly explained in terms of George Floyd’s killing having broken a threshold of shock and pain as he was only one man, one victim.

Many, before him, had been killed under the same circumstances.

Americans had responded in pretty much the same way when Rodney King and other subsequent victims were subjected to this dehumanising treatment by the police.

But these responses did not cascade to the rest of the world as is the case now. Arguably, the visibility of Floyd’s death made all the difference.

It also made every other similar incident before it and those to come, visible.

This one video clip made visible the banal circumstances under which African Americans and other people in similar situations across the world, find themselves in perilous situations and conditions of mortal susceptibility to police violence largely enabled by systemic racism.

Ultimately therefore, these two cases show that the visibility and visual witnessing of unjust actions and global disasters by news media and citizen journalists can attract public attention in transformational ways, however tenuous such transformation may be.

The post-apocalyptic imagery of empty streets, industrial hospitals, endless rows of beds with patients tethered to life-support systems as well as the deprivation and vulnerability of marginalised social groups in society alert us to our common vulnerabilities and mutual responsibilities towards each other, which elements can be highlighted and amplified by visual journalism.

l Phillip Santos is senior lecturer in the Department of Communication at the Namibia University of Science and Technology. The article expresses his personal views and was first published by The Accent, a Media Alliance of Zimbabwe initiative.

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