Bear witness — but then what?

“There needs to be calls to action, or at least discussion, that give meaning to the reams of primary documents.”

It’s going to get harder to look away. It’s also going to get harder to get closer.

As I type this, Syrian citizens are on Facebook, saying their goodbyes. They’re also on Twitter, saying their goodbyes. For all I know, they’re on Snapchat, Instagram, WhatsApp, and more, uploading tragedy one message at a time. And yet, the world can’t seem to do anything other than stare.

reyhan-harmanciThis past year, news consumers were faced again and again with the dilemma: Do I look? Is it ethical to watch someone livestreaming a police shooting? Is it ethical not to watch? Often, I’d bargain with myself to avoid having the images floating around my head. If I read the stories, then I won’t have to watch the body camera footage. I don’t know if that’s right; some days, it was just too much to take in. With violent or upsetting imagery, there’s also the danger of empathy fatigue. The sheer volume of material, many of it taken by machines (drones, surveillance cameras) makes it hard to stay engaged.

Journalists and the public have a responsibility to bear witness — but then what? In the coming year, I hope we can develop a better framework for processing this information, much of it visual, all of it heartbreaking. We should understand the risks of watching violent or traumatic imagery, and balance that against the need to look at the world as it is, not how we wish it would be. There needs to be calls to action, or at least discussion, that give meaning to the reams of primary documents.

A few years ago, a boss told me about a focus group that explained to him what was broken about journalism. It’s not enough, said a survey respondent, for the local paper to just report that a building is on fire. If you’re standing there as part of the community, you have to help put out the fire. At the time, I scoffed: There’s often no clear way to put out those fires, and it’s not the journalist’s job to make that choice for the public. That was before I could see, say, Facebook Live from inside the fire, or read the last text messages of the terrified people trapped inside. I wonder now if we can afford to take that position.

Reyhan Harmanci is an editor at First Look Media.

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