The American media has an enormous double standard on portrayals of violence on our television screens. It can be succinctly summed up as: real-world violence is obscured or (even worse) turned into a cartoon, but fictional violence is shown in stunningly full-color and high-definition clinical graphic detail -- for our entertainment. This disconnect is infantile. It is a form of censorship that the American public, for the most part, isn't even really aware of. But sometimes, as in the footage of the death of Neda from Iran, the disconnect itself is glaringly apparent.
When violence happens in the real world, the news is supposed to cover it. But often (as in recent airline and train tragedies) there is no film of the actual accident. So the guys in the tech back room whip up a cartoon, or "animation" of what they think might have happened. Since there is no actual knowledge or footage, this leaves them free (to be blunt) to "make stuff up." We all remember seeing the cartoon plane in the cartoon rainstorm from last week, in a "simulation" of what "may have happened."
A harder call for the news media is when there is actual footage of violence. There is a complex decision-making process which is followed in these cases. The first question is "does it show an American?" If an American is shown being killed on screen (which rarely happens), it is almost always pixelated. American dead bodies and body parts are either not shown at all, or pixelated as well. Dead bodies or deaths of foreigners get more leeway. Sometimes they're shown, sometimes not, and they can even be shown without pixelization (as long as there are no loose body parts, which seem to be completely banned). Blood on the streets is acceptible when it came from foreigners, but usually not from Americans.
When the footage of a young woman on the streets of Tehran who had just been shot and died on camera hit the airwaves, the American media (at least the parts that I saw, admittedly a subset of the whole) did a curious thing. The clip was rolled, and at the beginning (when Neda's face wasn't bloody), they showed the whole thing without pixels. But then as blood began flowing on her face, the face was suddenly pixelated out. And her actual death was not shown, as most media froze the picture before this happened. But there was a problem with the storyline here, because the still image of her bloody face had been turned into a powerful protest poster, very reminiscent of the Obama campaign poster. So the news media all showed the poster. With the same image of a bloody face that they had just pixelated out.
This, as I said before, is juvenile. It is editorial hair-splitting.
Either show us the video uncensored, or don't show the poster. You can't really have this one both ways. The American public can either handle this image or we can't. Decide, and be consistent.
Now, some of the problem when showing Americans on television comes down to privacy and lawsuits. No parent wants to see their son or daughter die on screen in a foreign war -- and especially not before they have been officially informed of the death by the military. And in our lawsuit-happy culture, editors are afraid of massive lawsuits if they don't err on the side of caution (this is likely why foreigners' deaths are more acceptible on screen, because there is less chance they'll sue, but I have to admit that is mere supposition on my part). And, some would say, part of it is common decency when editors have footage of atrocities like an American hostage being beheaded, or those bodies dangling from a bridge in Iraq.
But I still have to say, in the culture we have today, the double standard is kind of ridiculous. Turn on your television during just about any hour of primetime during the week, and you can see -- in full graphic detail -- autopsies, dead bodies, how those bodies got dead (with "bullet cam" animations following the slow-motion path of the bullet into the body, complete with the destruction to the body which results), violent murders, violent deaths, violence, bodies, violence, and more violence. Forensic shows are quite popular, which show -- in full high definition color -- bodies which have been burnt, drowned, dismembered, skeletonized, and just about every other thing you can image a poor body going through. And even a few you never could have imagined on your own, for good measure.
Now, I'm not some sort of prude. If it's OK with America to show these things on primetime television, when all the children ("Won't someone think of the children!!") are watching, that's OK with me. Images which weren't even allowed in R-rated movies when I grew up (even the horror movies) are now apparently just fine to watch while eating dinner.
As I said, that's OK with me. If I don't want to watch it, I will change the channel or turn off the idiot box and read a book.
But with such lax standards for primetime, why is the news so timid? At the same time entertainment (fictional) shows have seemingly thrown out the decency standards, the news media picked up those standards and started applying them to reality. In other words, it didn't always used to be this way. If you don't believe me, seek out pretty much any representative video from the Vietnam War from the staid and "decent" news programs of the day. If you've never seen such footage, it will shock you.
War is ugly. People die. In gruesome and painful ways. There are dead bodies, and injured soldiers, and wounded people screaming, and blood and violence. That's what war is. Bombs cause an awful lot of destruction, as well as the hundred other ways we've developed to kill each other.
And it's not just wars, either. People die, and the news media hasn't always been so squeamish about showing it. Of course, they didn't have the technology back then to make a little cartoon to show what happened (which is now used for, among other things, natural disasters, transportation disasters, crimes, and war).
Maybe it's just me, but I'm always offended when people's deaths are cartoon-ized. Whether a plane went down, or two trains smacked into each other, or a building collapses, or a firefight in a war, I am seriously offended when they turn it into a scene from a video game. To me, it cheapens it. And I've never been involved, or even know anyone involved, in any of the incidents, so it's not personal with me. To me, it just cheapens the deaths of hundreds of people falling from the sky in a plane when the media makes it into a Bugs Bunny cartoon, that's all.
And when there is video available of a death, whether it is of a young woman shot by her government's security services or any other tragedy, I really think the news media either needs to show it, or censor the thing entirely. Pixelizing a face is trying to have it both ways. It's like a nudity-free burlesque show as opposed to a strip show. The peek-a-boo nature of showing it with pixelated bits is pathetic. Either this sort of thing is acceptible for the public to see (as it clearly is, from the primetime lineup of the same networks who censor real-life violence), or it is not.
Having it both ways merely treats the public as children. And that's not what the news is supposed to be about, at least in my book.
Chris Weigant blogs at: ChrisWeigant.com