Tweeting from the scene: Citizen journalism or “tragi-porn”?
The Fort Hood killings, to hear Carr tell it, amount to “the perfect example to support my view” that “social media might not be an unequivocally Good Thing in terms of privacy and human decency.”
There are, presumably, people who have been touting social media as “an unequivocally Good Thing in terms of privacy and human decency.” And there was, presumably, a time before Twitter hatched when coverage of tragic breaking news mostly respected privacy and human decency. There was also, presumably, a time when good journalism did not require reporters to assess the reliability of eyewitness accounts of breaking news. I am not aware of such a time in history. No matter.
Carr singles out Tearah Moore, a Fort Hood soldier “tweeting minute-by-minute reports from inside the hospital where the wounded were being taken for treatment”:
“There surely can’t be a human being left in the civilised world who doesn’t know that cellphones must be switched off in hospitals, and yet not only did Moore leave hers on but she actually used it to photograph patients, and broadcast the images to the world. Just think about that for a second. Rather than offering to help the wounded, or getting the hell out of the way of those trying to do their jobs, Moore actually pointed a cell-phone at a wounded soldier, uploaded it to twitpic and added a caption saying that the victim ‘got shot in the balls’.”
Furthermore, Moore was wrong:
“As we now know, Major Hassan was not killed, but rather captured alive. Reports of a second – and third – shooter also now appear to be inaccurate. Whether someone was shot ‘in the balls’ hasn’t been publicly confirmed and, for the sake the of the victim’s privacy, let’s hope it never is – but the point is that many of Moore’s eye-witness reports weren’t worth the bits they were written on. They had no value whatsoever, except as entertainment and tragi-porn.”
The core problem, according to Carr, is “how the ‘real time web’ is turning all of us into inhuman egotists. How we’re increasingly seeing people at the scene of major accidents grabbing their cellphones to capture the dramatic events and share them with their friends, rather than calling 911.”
This is worth considering. I don’t simply want to dismiss.
But it’s also worth considering whether this is really anything new.
Take Kitty Genovese in 1964. Bystanders did nothing about the screaming altercation that ended in her rape and murder. Would Genovese have been any more or less dead if the bystanders had been avid Twitter users?
It’s also worth going back to 1991 when, according to a contemporary report in the New York Times, “George Holliday, 31 years old, an amateur photographer, said he began taping with his newly purchased video camera after he and his wife saw about 10 police cars stop a white sedan across the street from their second-floor apartment at about 1 A.M. Sunday.”
What Holliday shot came to be known as the Rodney King beating.
Had Holliday called 911 instead of videotaping, he would have reached a dispatcher for a police department run by Chief Darryl Gates, who ultimately was to say this about the videotape: “Even if we determine that the officers were indeed out of line in this case, it is an aberration. I would hope the public would not, on the basis of this one tape, make up their minds about the Los Angeles police.”
Others disagreed. In a way that Rodney King’s bruises alone never could have, Holliday’s video made it possible to have a real debate about longstanding charges of LAPD brutality. It also led to more than that, obviously.
What would Carr think about Holliday? That’s not clear. But Carr closes his post by slamming the man who showed the world the horror of Neda Agha Soltan dying of a gunshot wound during Iran’s crackdown against its own protesting citizens:
“the cameraman was not a professional reporter, but rather an ordinary person, just like the victim. And what did he do when he saw a young girl bleeding to death? Did he run for help, or try to assist in stemming the bleeding? No he didn’t.
“Instead he pointed his camera at her and recorded her suffering, moving in closer to her face for her agonising final seconds. For all of our talk of citizen journalism, and getting the truth out, the last thing that terrified girl saw before she closed her eyes for the final time was some guy pointing a cameraphone at her.”
Again, worth considering. But Carr can’t know what Ms. Soltan was thinking. He can’t know, for example, if her final thoughts were “Thank God. People will know what happened to me.” Presuming to speak for the dead is always a messy, foolish thing. If you ever catch me doing it, please send me a link to this post.
I used to be a newspaper reporter. As such, I sometimes covered breaking news. That informs how I look at tweets about breaking news. The stranger who approaches you at a fire scene might be the neighborhood crank, might be the most respected, observant, honest person in a 100-block radius, might be a jackass trying to get quoted in the paper under a false name such as Heywood Jablome. So the reporter needs to be cautious, skeptical.
So, too, does anyone looking to Twitter for news. So, too, does any citizen who picks up, say, the New York Times and reads that Saddam Hussein has weapons of mass destruction.
We can do this.