Viral videos should expose grim truths, not just titillate


By Joan Vennochi

The Boston Globe

Joan Vennochi can be reached at vennochi@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @Joan–Vennochi.

© 2014 The Boston Globe

Mission accomplished. The horrific beheading videos distributed by Islamic militants achieved their desired effect.

They forced President Obama to address the nation with a pledge to“degrade and ultimately destroy” the terrorist group behind them. They drew a sabre-rattling Dick Cheney back onto the conservative media stage. And, most notably, they shifted sudden attention onto a group most Americans paid little heed to when its many victims were slaughtered Iraqis.

It’s not unlike the success achieved by TMZ after it released a security video that showed football player Ray Rice slugging his then fiancee and now wife in an elevator.

I am not equating the murders of two journalists by merciless terrorists with Rice’s brutish behavior – nor equating the motives of terrorists with those of a news/gossip site. But from a communications standpoint, the fallout is similar. The TMZ-released video forced the National Football League to address criticism of its handling of domestic violence allegations and last week the league announced that a former FBI director would now be looking into it.

Both stories say something about how we now get our news – through video clips viewed first on our smartphones or laptops – and what it takes for us to care about it.

A picture used to be worth the proverbial 1,000 words. Today, a video that goes viral is worth millions of them.

Having an audio or video recording drive a news story is nothing new. The 1991 videotaped beating of Rodney King by the Los Angeles police generated national coverage more than two decades before anyone carried around an iPhone.

The difference today is speed and saturation. In an instant, a video is viewable around the world. No longer tied to a specific newscast, it is available 24/7. And old media will cover it extensively, so consumers know the details whether or not they personally access the video.

In a column headlined,“Medieval Message, Modern Delivery,” New York Times media writer David Carr noted that the real purpose of the beheading videos was to“spread dread and terror.” That they did, as he pointed out, via“a sophisticated production unit, with good cameras, technical proficient operators, and editors who have access to all the best tools.”

The grainy, black and white elevator security video showing the Rice assault on Janay Palmer lacks high production value, but it was just as effective in creating headlines. Yet, as Juliet Macur, another New York Times columnist, argues, the facts of that and other domestic violence cases should be shocking enough on their own. The NFL and the general public should not need pictures to flog their outrage.

But we do. Maybe because there’s so much information out there, we need to be shocked into separating the merely titillating from the really important. The lines blur.

One news cycle, an elevator security video is showing Beyonce’s sister, Solange, punching and kicking her brother-in-law, Jay-Z, and the main question is whether a celebrity marriage is on the rocks.

The next news cycle, an elevator security video is showing an NFL player knocking out his significant other. The immediate question is whether a two-game suspension is enough of a punishment, and the larger issue is how our society reacts to domestic violence. Of course that is not how Rice’s wife sees it. She put out a statement accusing the media of putting out the video“just to gain ratings.”

She was ridiculed for expressing that sentiment, but she isn’t wrong to wonder how much TMZ was thinking about click bait and how much those clicking on it are really concerned about domestic violence.

There’s no question these videos draw us in and mesmerize us. But watching them or even simply talking about them may not lead to the best decisions and policy. Maybe we need to step back and think about the issues they raise in a more thoughtful way, rather than let them dictate the way we think about the world.

Do we want to get involved in Syria just because two journalists were beheaded on video? It was a terrible and unjust fate, but the terrorists recorded it and put it out to make us react – or, if they really get their way, overreact.

Joan Vennochi can be reached at vennochi@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @Joan–Vennochi.