Authenticity is probably the most valuable commodity in the media world today. It is the ground upon which trust is built, and thus, it provides one of the best indicators of the strength & durability of the relationship between your content and your audience.
However, what is authentic is not necessarily appropriate. In fact, one can completely alienate your audience with any missteps in this balancing act.
So let me stir up a little controversy and debate around some of the issues in the choices around what and how to engage audiences. Yesterday in my Facebook feed a video scrolled past and started playing. Not quite the decapitation videos of Isis, but this was the story of a dog, called Kalu, whose face had been eaten away by maggots. Needless to say the opening image is still haunting me, and after waking me with nightmarish visions at 2am, I deeply regret seeing it.
Authentic yes, appropriate, that’s harder to judge. My value system here is probably more left of centre, so while I would rather choose what plays in my feed (this auto-play for Facebook is really intrusive and unpleasant on many levels) I did actually watch through to the end of the video, which showed a much happier and healthier hound by the last sequence. If you are interested here is the link, it’s a video which was carried in the Mail Online. (I warn you before you click, you can’t un-see that kind of thing).
Personally and politically I think that there is a very broad category of media that should not be given a voice by the mainstream. That’s in fact the reason why I mention Isis’ videos in the opening. By giving air time we inherently validate and give gravitas, and in the case of mainstream news, I think fear-mongering is simply de rigueur for getting ratings. But that is a different debate, so lets look at the case of the video of Kalu, the dog who lost his face, and ask some questions.
1.) Do we need to see media like this in order to be proactive? There is almost no question in my mind that I would have put Kalu down. Turns out that decision would have been the wrong one. There is also virtually no question that I personally would not have acted to help a dog in that condition. I find it so horribly repellent and awful that I simply cannot see myself approaching an animal with a wound like that. So I can actually say that the video did change my view as to what constitutes both a worthwhile and salvageable “cause” when it comes to the life of a deeply abused animal. It traumatised me, but it worked. The result is that it altered my world-view, and that’s a positive – no?
2.) Could my view have been changed without causing me the visual trauma? Hmmm. Tricky. I don’t think so. In order to see the possibility of helping a creature is such dire distress, you have to in fact see the dire distress. I don’t see a way around that, but feel free to disagree.
3.) Are there other repercussions to seeing this kind of material? Absolutely. Here comes the hardest part of giving a value judgement to traumatic material. There is something so grisly and terrifying when we see creatures or people enduring such horrific suffering. It shatters feelings of safety and well-being that we cultivate. It ransacks any idea that this world is a soft, cosy and safe place. It literally means we stare into hell itself. And that is deeply uncomfortable. Is it worthwhile? I have mixed feelings about this question. Part of me says yes, we need to look, to really see what we are. Finite, fragile and vulnerable. There is an authenticity here that feels inescapable, and part of me wants to see the reality of our existence as a mature and proactive citizen. However, part of me feels like there is an inescapable fuelling of negative energy that makes my world-view that much poorer, more negative, more saturated with a rather helpless feeling of life’s most unappealing aspects.
As media and content makers the bigger question is, where do you draw the line?
I will never forget watching the producer of the Jerry Springer show lobby to broadcast a live execution. I was horrified. He used the exact argument I have just covered above to justify his position. How do you change public opinion without seeing what we are really talking about? He argued that it was an authentic look, and therefore people had the right to see it if they chose to. As the man on death row had agreed to it, he felt that it was our right and choice to watch his final moments. For me it sounded like the argument to basically put gladiatorial games out for TV broadcast – relishing death as a sport. That said, as someone who is strongly opposed to the death penalty, I can see that in a slightly different context I would argue not only can we watch it, but that if we are to advocate for the death penalty, we in fact should be required to watch it. How else do we authentically judge?
And yet, personally I am appalled that the daily FOX and CNN news services (I see them at gym, not even by choice) devote their bandwidth to fostering panic and terror because, like seeing Kanu, I think the human frailty is to look first and only understand or judge later. The damage, psychic and quite real, comes later. I also know that news agencies have editorial sessions to try and weed out this very problem. When I was a producer at Carte Blanche, many sessions were spent arguing these points. In fact George Mazarakis, my executive, was required to defend my first story on “War Journalists” as it carried footage of a decapitated head. I still believe that it was the right decision. How could you tell a story about how journalists were affected by what they filmed, unless you saw the kind of footage that broadcasters normally wouldn’t show?
Of course, context and warning works very differently on the internet versus television as a broadcast platform. Kanu’s story carried no warning for me, it just started with a dog whose face was completely caved in and filled with maggots. The ISIS videos also came across my feed, and I heard Jihadi John’s rant before turning off as I realised what was coming next. Jerry Springer I guess does carry a warning, but in context, it feels like his subject and audience are about celebrating depravity, not asking penetrating questions as to the moral and ethics of what they cover.
I leave you with this thought. In today’s world we simply press “like” to broadcast our thoughts and opinions. We need to look closely at what governs those decisions, because in many ways we are all now in the driving seat. We are all now “broadcasters”, whether we want that responsibility or not.
Brett Lotriet Best is the Creative Director for EdenRage Media, check out their Immersive Media work at www.edenrage.tv. Go on, take a bite!