Journalists’ Cameras and Social Control

Journalists’ Cameras and Social Control

Earlier this month, I wrote about the ways in which police body cameras and our own cellphone cameras exert forms of social control over our lives. Inspired by the works of Jeremy Bentham and Michel Foucault, I considered how these tools for memorializing the moments in our lives actually affect the moments they are thought to capture. Police body cameras, because they promise an “objective” record of events, may induce citizens and officers alike to be on their best behavior. And the cameras on our ubiquitous cell phones prompt us to pause and perform in certain predictable ways, whether for a selfie or a candid shot of someone else’s exploits.

I have no doubt that such visual records have value. I enjoy snapshots and short videos from family and friends revealing the beauty of their surroundings or the antics of their children or grandchildren. I am grateful, as well, for the help police and amateur videos sometimes provide us in struggling to understand tragedies (though the evidence they provide, and how different groups of observers interpret it, has itself become the focus of recent controversy surrounding Eric Garner’s death while being arrested by New York City police officers).

I am concerned, however, that the prevalence of cameras may be having unanticipated and at times undesirable effects on how we behave toward others. In particular, I am concerned about how journalists’ cameras exert a peculiar kind of control over our understanding of the most difficulty challenges we face.

There is a certain unspoken conspiracy between news videographers and photographers, on the one hand, and demonstrators and activists on the other. Though it may not be obvious at first, these two groups have complementary interests.

The photographer/videographer needs powerful images to tell the story. Uninteresting images are like poorly written news prose; they represent a professional failure of sorts. Beyond this, compelling images are more likely to be printed or given airplay, and more likely to receive better placement in the publication or telecast, than less emotion-charged shots. Publication and prominence are the standard against which journalists’ reputations are measured. Better images, better reputation. More bragging rights.

The demonstrator or activist wants the demonstration to attract public notice; the broader the notice, the better. Individuals may want their 15 minutes of fame (“That’s me throwing the rock!”) or to place their imprint on public perceptions of the issues in play, or even to change the course of history by helping create evocative moments like the fire hosing of peaceful civil rights demonstrators in Birmingham, Ala., in 1963 or the beating of anti-war protesters in Chicago in 1968. To achieve any of these goals, the demonstrator needs the moment of action, the camera to memorialize it, and the journalist to transmit the images to a broader audience.

Attracting the gaze of the camera isn’t easy, especially with global newsfeeds and a profit-driven news media that needs to attract and hold an audience being courted by a wealth of alternative entertainments. The more dramatic the moment, whether in pathos or in violence, the more likely the camera will click or whirr, and the more likely the resulting image will be on the front page or the nightly news.

In short, video journalists need demonstrators to go over the top, and demonstrators go over the top, in part, to ensure their image is the one that appears in press.

In public relations parlance, it’s called a “pseudo-event.” It’s an event (meaning, it really happens), but only because the media are there to cover it. No press, no cameras . . . maybe no rocks, no firebombs.

In this perverse way, the news media can become complicit in creating “newsworthy” events. They may encourage violence, or extreme statements by demonstrators. They may even make careers for people whose primary claim to fame is the turn of a clever and inflammatory phrase at the click of a video camera “on” button.

Meanwhile, many a news viewer, reader or casual receiver takes these images as accurate representations of the events themselves, rather than the altered presentation of reality driven by news values and the controlling effect of the camera.

The news camera, then, becomes a double-headed means of social control. It induces behavior in those on the scene of action, and it induces understandings in the minds of viewers to whom these images are presented.

I’m not suggesting that there’s an easy fix. It would be helpful if photojournalists and videographers (and, at least as important, their assignment editors and news directors) questioned the images they create both before and after they create them. While it is very difficult to know what a “true” representation of any complex event looks like, some images clearly give greater prominence to exceptions, rather than helping us understand what more generally has taken place. Perhaps the goal shouldn’t be drama, but reflection of the total reality.

It also must be the task of those of us who are concerned about the issues of the day and how we as a society address them to challenge and critique and qualify claims that generalize groups or events into neat categories on which we can pass tidy judgments. (“Those demonstrators are just lawless punks looking to cause destruction and to steal what they’re too lazy to earn.” “The police are prejudiced thugs who’d rather beat you or shoot you than respect your rights.”)

Otherwise, the self-interested convergence of the desires of the demonstrator and the aspirations of the photojournalist will distort our understandings and make finding solutions to our most pressing problems something quite beyond our control.