Student guest post: Graphic video of S.C. shooting needed a warning

Students in JOMC 457, Advanced Editing, are writing guests posts for this blog this semester. This is the 12th of those posts. Amanda Raymond is a senior at UNC-Chapel Hill majoring in journalism and psychology, with a minor in English literature. She is originally from Philadelphia but has lived in Concord, North Carolina, for the past 11 years. She enjoys spending time with her family and close friends and watching movies and television. She loves reading fiction novels and often buys four new books before finishing her current one.

As the credits rolled signaling the end of one of the primetime TV shows I watch during the week, a teaser for the 11 p.m. news started to play. It was what looked like a citizen video of a police officer shooting a man that was running away from him until he fell to the ground. There was no lead-in, no warning. The new station showed almost all of the video during a promo. I was shocked.

The anchors went on to say that the video was of a white officer (Michael Thomas Slager) shooting an African-American man (Walter Scott) in South Carolina. Stay tuned for all of the information brought to you by your local news at 11.

If the station wanted to get my attention, they accomplished their goal. I was stunned into watching the first 10 minutes of the broadcast. I can understand that this story is especially relevant because of the other white-officer-shooting-black-civilian stories that have been cropping up recently. The story also has a proximity value because South Carolina is practically in our own backyards. But was it a good idea to show the most graphic part of the video without any warning during a promo?

There is always going to be hesitation when a newsroom wants show a graphic video on the air. On the one hand, using videos by witnesses does add to the credibility of the story. Videos can be used to verify what the journalist is reporting. And allowing the audience to actually see the video adds a higher level of believability to the story. As they say, seeing is believing. Showing a video can also add clarity. A journalist can use all of the words in the dictionary to describe an event, but it still won’t compare to actually seeing it for yourself.

On the other hand, news organizations run the risk of the video’s content disturbing their viewers. No parent would want their young child to see someone being burned alive by terrorists if they happen to be passing by the television. And some people would simply prefer not to see those kinds of things. It’s all right if you tell them about it, but they cannot handle seeing the graphic details.

Using bystanders as sources can be a risky move. There is always a chance that the video has been digitally altered. Also, some videos are just one moment in the timeline. We do not see anything that happened before or after that moment. One moment could mean 10 different things when put in different contexts.

Some news organizations will choose to show the least graphic parts of a video on their broadcast while verbally explaining the more violent parts. Others will mention the contents of the video and tell the viewers to go to their website if they want to see it. Others still will choose to show the most graphic parts of the video with a verbal warning beforehand.

I think it’s safe to say that all of the news organizations will show the video in some capacity (either on air or online) because if your station is the only one not showing the video, the station will look like it is not as knowledgeable. If the station does go that route, I think audiences respect them if they give a statement about why they made that decision. That way, the viewers know the station is aware of the video and are deliberately choosing not to show it.

There are obviously many pros and cons to using graphic videos during a broadcast. As more residents record the actions of law enforcement and other officials in order to keep authority in check, editors and news organizations will have to weigh those considerations to determine if using the video adds value to the piece and is necessary for the audience to see, or too graphic for most people to handle and better explained with words.

Regarding the broadcast that used the South Carolina video as a teaser, as a viewer, I would at least appreciate a warning before that kind of graphic content is shown.