Read: The era of fake video begins
But consider the simple but powerful frame that The New York Times gave to a video of what appears to be a missile hitting the plane in Tehran: “Video verified by The New York Times appears to show an Iranian missile hitting a plane above Parand, near Tehran’s airport,” the story begins. The verification is the lede of the story. It’s only a few paragraphs. The video had been floating around on social media. The Times posted the video solely to say: Yes, our reporting says this video is real. Long before the investigation has been completed, the Iranian government’s position that the airplane malfunctioned has been complicated by the emergence of what appears to be a regular person shooting video on a cellphone. If something big happens in public, someone’s got video of it.
The media scholars Britt Paris and Joan Donovan have written about the ways that images have always had a more complicated relationship to the truth than it appears at first. Bits of media don’t have authority all on their own. They must acquire it through the context that surrounds them. Paris and Donovan provide numerous examples: When photographs were introduced into courts, they were deemed less authoritative than written records. Photos did not stand alone as objective truth, and the circumstances of their creation were factored into the court proceedings. Another example: the use and misuse of video during the Rodney King trial, which seemed to show clear-as-day police brutality until defense lawyers began to slow it down and muddy what it seemed to capture.
Newspapers, as we know them, came of age with the Industrial Revolution. Through most of human history, most people didn’t need to know what was happening halfway around the world, and in any case, they couldn’t have known if they’d wanted to. Few people knew much about anywhere beyond their immediate physical surroundings. With railroads and steamships, and telegraphs and radios, everything began to move more quickly. The newspaper, in turn, became a sense-making apparatus, even when the news it delivered actually made the world more confusing and awful. It provided a literal space for verified information in a world newly awash with things to know.
I looked back at a random newspaper from this day in 1920, Minnesota’s Brainerd Daily Dispatch, on newspapers.com. January 9, 1920, was a normal day in Minnesota. Cold, of course. The local-news section noted the comings and goings of several people. So-and-so in St. Paul. Someone in Butte, Montana. A doctor from Minneapolis was in town. But there, on the front page, was news of a volcanic eruption in Mexico. Thousands of people died from “a stream of lava six hundred feet wide.” Farmers were cut down in their fields, their herds killed. The paper recorded no deaths in Brainerd, Minnesota, that day, but to expand concern for more of the world required taking in a more complex, difficult version of what happened on January 9, 1920.