As I watched the video of Michael Slager, a South Carolina police officer, gun down Walter Scott, I was struck by two thoughts. One: we finally have clear-cut video of a police officer shooting an unarmed civilian and can make the officer answer for his actions. Two: I just watched a real, live person die on camera.
For all the hundreds of creative ways I’ve seen people die in fiction, I’d only seen one other real human being die on tape: John F. Kennedy. Yet Kennedy’s death doesn’t feel as jarringly real as the video of Scott’s death. Everything about the Scott video, captured on a phone, feels incredibly palpable and relatable—it’s an everyday video that happens to feature the death of a human being.
But perhaps the most chilling aspect of the video is that it was so readily available, promptly front-and-center on The New York Times website, where I first viewed it. As Americans watched Walter Scott’s body become lifeless on the ground, it became clear that nothing in the news media is off-limits any longer.
As news sources become increasingly comfortable with showing graphic content, other media are much more careful with what they depict to viewers. In the midst of an Elite Eight battle between Duke and Louisville during the 2013 NCAA men’s basketball tournament, Kevin Ware fell to the ground, sustaining a leg injury that left the bone of his left leg sticking out of his skin. CBS was quick to stop showing replays of the grisly sight.
But the death of Walter Scott didn’t raise many eyebrows, let alone any calls for censorship. Many were too busy celebrating the concrete evidence of the shooting of an unarmed man to question the man’s death itself. In a time when the death of black men at the hands of police is instant media buzz, are we becoming desensitized to the reality of death?
It seems likely that the many black deaths we see in the news have rendered us a little immune to the concept of death itself, but perhaps the idea of death itself is better left as a secondary measure in the face of news, as horrifyingly inhumane as that may sound. Indeed, while it may be somewhat irreverent to the value of human life, perhaps the facts matter more than appeals to emotion and careful treading.
Consider Michael Brown and Trayvon Martin. Without video evidence of their respective deaths, the mass majority were left to engage in guesswork as to the nuances, or even the direct details, of the events leading to their deaths. Those who were critical of the police (or the neighborhood watch, when it comes to George Zimmerman) resorted largely to appeals to emotion in order to convince people that the authorities were at fault.
Give me the hard facts that may be enough to convict Michael Slager of murder over those previous two situations any day, at any expense to my stomach. Without video taken in South Carolina, the ultimate expense may be objectivity.
The supposed counter-argument to a free reign of video evidence in these types of situations has been tried many times over. The film Nightcrawler last fall exemplified it: without taking caution in depicting graphic material, news stations may eventually compete for ratings by means of obtaining the most graphic piece of evidence, following the age-old saying, “If it bleeds, it leads.”
Yet the ultimate responsibility still falls on the people, as it always has, to determine for themselves the type of news in which they will take interest. We must demand the respect of news media outlets, and of ourselves, by maintaining a commitment to the truth.
The video of Walter Scott didn’t make me flinch, although the police’s actions certainly made me livid. There was no entertainment in seeing the killing of an unarmed person—over a road infraction, no less. Instead, there was a sense of purpose in finally being able to utilize video evidence effectively. As long as we can keep news itself at the forefront of importance, videos like these may prove revolutionary in the way we do news, or catch criminals at the very least.