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

More

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

aljazeera jan10 ph.jpg

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.

It is such a grave violation of human dignity to show someone's florid mental illness to the world at large without their permission. Not only is display of such events beyond the population of immediate witnesses an invasion of privacy for the individual, who has no control over the medical event, but the public display can significantly worsen the condition itself, making it that much harder to treat. In the case of the French killings, it should perhaps become a crime in itself to honor a murderer's wishes to circulate his terror. While the videos of atrocities and garden variety epileptic fits and psychotic breakdowns will keep pouring to media outlets around the world, it's time those outlets install better filters. Already all incoming video from whatever source is reviewed by an editor or producer at any media outlet prior to going on air, or going online on that organization's website, unless it is coverage of a live event, like a car chase. Now it's time to apply some Al Jazeera-level standards. "We are not a sensationalist channel. We're not looking to broadcast images without weighing the risks and the consequences," Al Jazeera's Paris bureau chief was quoted saying. The network later issued a statement explaining its decision: "given the video does not add any information that is not already in the public domain, [Al Jazeera's] news channels will not be broadcasting any of its contents." A revolutionary concept.

After airing the Jason Russell video, CNN host Don Lemon remarked "It's very hard to look at that." My concern is there are some things CNN viewers simply shouldn't be looking at, and this is one of them. What's the news value, what's the new information not already in the public domain? What are we getting in the trade for needlessly humiliating one man? In the case of one of the largest news stories of the year, Al Jazeera knew the tradeoff for showing its video wasn't enough to warrant honoring the wishes of a killer, and further terrorizing a nation. Would outlets like CNN, NBC, and ABC have aired video of Princess Diana dying in car wreckage had the photographers trailing her Mercedes been successful in their mission? I don't think so, but that was 1997.

Two epileptic members of of the British parliament are climbing up Big Ben in order to promote awareness and understanding of their condition. They point out that statistically there may be four other members with epilepsy who aren't speaking up. There may be handful of epileptics in Congress as well, and one day C-Span cameras will probably record a Representative collapsing with a seizure and convulsing on the House floor. It doesn't matter to me that the victim is a public figure. People should have to go to the back alleys of the Internet and sift through pornography and pop-ups to get their fix of this kind of video. We shouldn't have it delivered it us on the Today Show.

The day after I warned viewers of the Russell video that the event was not fit for public consumption, TMZ released a second "up close" video. Out of principle, I never viewed it. I knew what it depicted. We all know what Al Jazeera's video contains. Merah's work may find its way to other less scrupulous outlets and it may make its way online. I implore you not to view it, and I respectfully ask for the world's news producers to pay heed to the standards now being set in Qatar.   

Jump to comments
Presented by

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.

Get Today's Top Stories in Your Inbox (preview)

'Stop Telling Women to Smile'

An artist's campaign to end sexual harassment on the streets of NYC.


Elsewhere on the web

Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register. blog comments powered by Disqus

Video

Where Time Comes From

The clocks that coordinate your cellphone, GPS, and more

Video

Computer Vision Syndrome and You

Save your eyes. Take breaks.

Video

What Happens in 60 Seconds

Quantifying human activity around the world

Writers

Up
Down

More in Global

Just In