Don't Air Sensationalist Trauma: What Al Jazeera Can Teach American Media

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The Doha-based news agency refuses to televise footage of France's Jewish school shooting.

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Al Jazeera's English-language studios in Doha, Qatar / AP

Last week the world was held hostage to video of a floridly psychotic, naked man ranting in the street. This week we were almost accosted by gruesome video footage shot by Mohamed Merah, a French al-Qaeda sympathizer who kept a video camera dangling around his neck while he murdered seven of his countrymen during three shooting attacks this month. Video of Jason Russell's illness should never have been circulated by the American media outlets including TMZ, ABC News, NBC News, and CNN. These organizations should take a cue from Al Jazeera who, though in possession of video they say details one of the major news stories of the year (a trauma for France on the scale of a national terror attack), will still not air the video. Though we can't know for sure what the tape shows, the network says their decision is guided by journalist principles.

Media itself can motivate breakdowns and violent crimes alike. In the case of Merah, whose compatriot succeeded in delivering Al Jazeera a video of what the network says is an edited chronicle of horrors in the hours following his rampage, setting senseless shooting to music and chants, the production and dissemination of his final film seems to have been part of his plans. Would he even have gone forward, were there no market for jihadi videos? Aspirations for a wide viewership of his acts, based on what we know so far, appear to have been a motivator underlying his psychological state. In the case of Russell, as several psychiatrists have commented, it's likely that the global attention from his own videographic work of passion pushed him past his mental breaking point.

In both cases the media has ended up with riveting new content. Other news organizations immediately began clamoring for Al Jazeera to give them access to Merah's video. I hope Al Jazeera will disclose the names of those outlets. In the news ecosystem, these videos often start in the sludge at the bottom of the information lake, somewhere along the level of TMZ, then percolate up to the floating water lilies like the Today Show and Good Morning America, which both aired the Russell video. An ABC News spokesperson told me the network "used very brief excerpts of the video of Jason Russell" as the story developed, and "presented it in its full context." That context was in the wake of the Russell family confirming a diagnosis of brief psychotic disorder, and well past the publication date of media commentaries (like my own) warning viewers that they were witnessing an acute medical event, not a drunken stupor. This should have been apparent to ABC's medical consultants as well.

In the spirit of all-access bashing, The Atlantic Wire also ran the Russell video in a piece that I felt was styled too flippantly (a Matt Stone reference, really?) and came off as link-candy to my eyes. The Wire's editor, Gabriel Snyder, explained to me that he believed the video transformed the story from a punchline magnet to a cause for concern. He pointed out a wave of worried comment on Twitter that followed the video's debut, like that from Mother Jones's Clara Jeffery, who wrote, "Ok, watched TMZ video of Kony dude. In video shown: naked, not masturbating, clearly barking mad. Maybe everyone should back off." Gabriel's test for what's fit-to-post is ultimately "whether [events] are newsworthy, whether they involve a legitimate public matter." If the semblance of newsworthiness is all we have to meet, prepare yourself for an endless theater of human misery, up close and personal (does anyone have a closer visual on that Jet Blue pilot?), because audiences are fragmented and everything seems interesting to someone. Have you heard of the television show Hoarders? I rest my case.

We're allowing global media attention to be directed by some of the globe's most suspect people, like the kind of folks who think it's funny to film mentally ill people pacing naked on the sidewalk and the kind of people who think their criminal acts should shape world history. I'm not calling for censoring difficult details about what horrible people do, or what horrible things befall people. I believe there's a powerful difference between video and words. Video is simply unique, and now there is more of it, so much more that it's time to consider the proper way to treat the onslaught. It's a powerful tool everyone has at the ready 24/7, and now there is nothing standing between your own personal health crisis ending up on the Internet but the judgment of the cell-phone clutching 15-year-old boy standing next to you.

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Ford Vox, MD, is a physician, based in Atlanta, who specializes in caring for people with complex brain injuries. He has written for Newsweek, Slate, and the Los Angeles Times.

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