As it happens every year, 2017 brought a number of violent and news-making incidents. But increasingly, video footage plays a critical role in how we understand them.
October’s mass shooting in Las Vegas, which claimed the lives of 58 people and injured hundreds more, was not only witnessed by 20,000 or so horrified concert-goers. It was also viewed by millions soon after it happened, thanks to various video sources — smartphones, surveillance cameras, and police bodycams. It wasn’t long before footage of the shooter himself emerged.
I say it’s time to update the adage: If a tree falls and no one captures it on video, did it really happen? More than ever, seeing is believing. Video is our arbiter of truth. While news crews, documentary makers and professional videographers comb the land, a version of factual TV is being created hourly by anyone with an iPhone or surveillance camera. This is the real reality TV.
Apart from the Las Vegas shooting, think of all the serious issues or events where life has been changed by video, often unintended. If it seems like everyone is a producer these days, it’s true. The world is giving us compelling footage that makes an impact on so many areas:
• Crime. From mass murders to capturing criminals on surveillance cameras to police behavior, video can be the determining factor in assorted cases making their way through the justice system.
• Politics. A C-Span camera with an open mic catches Sen. Chuck Schumer’s revealing comments regarding the President. Remember Donald Trump’s “Access Hollywood” caught-on-tape braggadocio, as first reported by the Washington Post? And if it weren’t for another product of the digital revolution – emails – we might be getting tweets from President Hillary Clinton.
• Global warming. Cameras capture a thousand-year old iceberg the size of Delaware crashing into the sea. Hmmm, it could be a sign that it’s getting warmer.
• Sports. Every close match is now essentially decided by replays that tell the truth better than the naked eye. Touchdown? No!
Life is a constant reality show thanks to visual media. I wonder, though, about the stories that aren’t covered or easily captured on video. They’re important but often neglected because they’re not visual enough, and often require more context than a clip can provide. Let’s apply that thinking to the same categories listed above:
• Racism. As we’ve seen in the recent documentaries marking the 25th anniversary of the L.A. riots, the Camcorder video of Rodney King’s beating at the hands of members of the LAPD seems to have single-handedly ushered in the era of “citizen journalism.” But it’s horrifying to think of incidents that may have not been recorded over the years — and thus not taken seriously. In a recent documentary and news coverage reflecting on the Detroit riots of 1967, a black police officer tells how he was almost arrested by his fellow white officers. Of course, there wasn’t ubiquitous video back then to verify his account and provide justice.
• Air travel. The seats are smaller, the service terrible, but airline consolidation may be a cause of the industry’s problems — not much to see there, and no video.
• Crime. Armed robberies and other criminal acts are routinely captured by surveillance cameras. But where is the video for bank fraud, embezzlement, insider trading, identity theft, hacking, and other white-collar crimes? They’re almost impossible to track visually, and thus rarely a subject of documentaries or factual video.
• Politics. Apart from “gotcha” moments and confrontations, what happens when cameras or microphones aren’t present? Who knows? Donald Trump Jr.’s meeting with a Russian lawyer during the Trump campaign in 2016 didn’t come to light until a year after it happened – and of course, there are varying stories regarding what went on. No video, no proof.
• Global warming. Even with video, there is still debate about the causes or effects of the earth’s rise in temperatures, a less visual subject. Painstaking research and slow-moving trends are difficult to capture on video. The truth is that scientific process is complex and often not visual.
• Sports. Football players caught abusing women on video are punished, but questions linger about athletes taking steroids because… well, there’s no video evidence.
Returning to the Las Vegas shooting, beyond the video, maybe it will lead to more investigative documentaries, in-depth reports or imaginative treatments on the important but less visual questions about guns and public safety. Then again, conventional wisdom suggests that viewers would rather watch a pile of puppies on Facebook than a documentary on any number of important topics — gun control, nuclear arms, economic inequality, Medicare fraud… stop if you’ve already yawned.
Still, after all this time, since the dawn of the TV age, we remain smitten with the video image. Video rules! It controls our agenda via the news, reality TV, YouTube and other forms of programming. And it means that there are whole areas of life we consistently ignore or barely consider simply because there is no exciting footage.
I’m not suggesting the audience is wrong, only that we all remember: Seeing is believing — and entertaining — but it’s not always the whole truth.
Michael Cascio is president and CEO of M&C Media LLC, where he advises selected media and production partners, and produces documentaries. He is also a guest speaker and writer, whose recent article for the Sunday New York Times revealed how his experience as a backstage janitor prepared him for a career in television. At National Geographic, A&E, Animal Planet, and MSNBC, Cascio has won four Emmys, two Oscar nominations and a “Producer of the Year” award.