I was pretty young, but I remember with fascination and horror the stills from the Zapruder film of the John Kennedy assassination. Frame by frame, Life Magazine, which in those days defined news photography, in early 1964 ran the grainy color 8mm images of the murder—Kennedy grabbing his throat as the first bullet hit him, then Jackie cradling him, finally a red blur as the killing round went through his head.
There must have been comparable, mass-circulated, images of death from before JFK’s, but I don’t remember any. The ones that came after I do remember well: Martin Luther King Jr. crumpled on the Memphis balcony; Bobby Kennedy dying, his face almost luminous as he’s comforted by the Filipino waiter in Los Angeles; the Viet Cong commando executed during Tet; the anguished girl crouching, screaming, alongside the dead student at Kent State.
They were signature moments from a world gone mad, and they left a mark because they were rare. They were rare because the news media shied away from pictures of death and dying. That was never because the pictures weren’t readily available. No metro newspaper ever complained about a shortage of grisly pictures. Images of shotgunned murder victims, limbs severed in car wrecks, impaled motorists were never hard to come by.
But the pictures were considered distasteful, more likely to cost subscriptions than to sell papers. I once asked an editor from the National Enquirer why his tabloid hadn’t published photos of Princess Diana dying in her wrecked limousine in Paris, by all accounts a harrowing scene captured by a platoon of paparazzi. Two reasons, he said: Our readers would hate us, and we’d get thrown out of the supermarkets.
Beyond that, the logic went, such images were rarely ever needed to tell the story. That was the thinking.
But that was then. We have entered a new age when it comes to images of death. Video of violent killings has become routine. Round-the-clock news channels, lacking fresh video, run continuous loops of snuff film.
How many times have I seen the 12-year-old in Cleveland with a toy gun shot dead by a cop with a real one; the teenager in Chicago as he’s shot and shot again, incredibly, 16 times, by a policeman; the Paris club-goers running into the alleyway, filmed from above, some dying, others stumbling past the bodies; the ISIS videos of hostage slaughter, images generally carried by our media right up to the moment when blade meets throat.
And the inexhaustible supply of surveillance video, a mainstay of local news now, more images of beatings and shootings. Our public records rules generally ensure that once that footage is entered in court filings, they are in the public domain, and media can use them as well (without having to pay anybody.)
We are in a new era. Violent death has become normalized as daily spectacle. That’s not disputable. But I see no evidence that anybody in the media has paused to ask themselves whether that might not be such a good thing.
Now, I fully agree that if not for the fact that images of police violence have been made public, instances of murderous brutality might have gone unnoticed and unavenged. But that doesn’t require saturation 24/7 repetition by news channels.
That footage becomes routinized not because news media are seeking justice. It’s because they’re lazy; they have in hand cheap and compelling footage; they won’t let archaic standards of taste and public service lose them viewers to the tiny screens of social media that have no standards of either; and they haven’t wasted a moment reflecting on whether they might be doing harm.
And are they? Who knows. The effects of media violence on audiences have been examined for as long as there have been media. The problem is, the overwhelming mass of research has focused on fictional violence—movies and TV—for the simple reason that until now there hasn’t been all that much real violence graphically displayed in the news. (Typically, news coverage has been of people reacting to violence they witnessed, or reporters describing violence after it occurred. Even so, there’s evidence that it inspires others to have a go, whether via school shootings or suicides.)
The scarcity of imagery has ended. Now, the public is routinely watching as real people are beaten or put to death. And nobody knows how we’re being affected.
To me, it’s hard to imagine that the generation of children who are looking on, whose parents are admonishing them to pay attention to the news—on the quaint theory that news prepares them to understand their world and function as citizens—are not drawing disturbing conclusions about that world, about what’s normal and what’s expected.
If the media, unwittingly, are inducing audiences to swallow their outrage and accept repugnant and murderous behavior as normal, we all have a problem. Instead of being vehicles for exposure and reform, they have become instruments of a general coarsening of expectations. And then we’re all victims.