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The Sanitisation of Images & Worship of Certainty in Media

March 26, 2009

Rob, a university colleague of mine, has been generous enough to speak about a subject I’m very interested in, and something he’s focusing on for his thesis.  He studies social theory. Doesn’t twitter.

Please read, and think about, his wise observations:

Like Simon, I’m a graduate student at the University of Amsterdam, and like Simon the issue of conflicts and how they are represented has always been of interest to me. However unlike Simon, I study principally theory at the University, leaving me the type of person you would go to extreme lengths to avoid at social gatherings, including exposing yourself to the natterings of inane creatures who believe that Next Top Model is of critical importance to the world.

However, keeping at the forefront of my mind the mantra: “I must not bore you”, I will try to contribute a little to the blog on the issue of the representation of conflict in the media.

There have been several academic articles which have sought to analyse how war has been represented in the media via images. The findings of one “Picturing the Gulf War: Constructing an Image of War in Time, Newsweek, and U.S. News & World Report”, highlights many of the concerns raised by others.

However for the point of this blog, we’ll stick with one issue raised: that the consequences of conflict are very rarely shown in the media, and if they are, they are sanitised to such a degree that the ethical and moral implications for the audience are lost.

To underline how insulated Western audiences are from the realities of atrocity, one need only look to the coverage of the bombings in Madrid.

This sanitisation of the consequences of violence is particularly dangerous, because it removes the moment of horror for the audience, in which the individual is left to reflect on the event, to ask questions. In the case above, the moment of being confronted with the bloodied limb of a passenger, which disturbs the viewer because it challenges his or her view of bodily integrity, creates a space, a moment, for critical thought.

However in the case of the Times, Telegraph and I would argue the Guardian such a moment is not provided by the image. This is a particular consequence the public should not see. Instead we are meant to believe from this image that only inanimate objects (the train in the background) are ripped apart in a bombing, animate objects remain whole, dead of course, but that doesn’t disturb us really, not like a limb ripped from a human being would. When that shock moment is lost, the image should be seen as worthless. It has failed in it primary task to show what the written word cannot convey – horror.

(I’m repeating my mantra at double-speed now, because I feel some theory is needed here to reiterate my point.)

When images of atrocity are managed/censored/selected, whatever word you may wish to use, the reality of the atrocity is lost, and the image cows down to the accompanying news report that creates the narrative of the event.

Cees Hamelink, who Simon has referred to before, noted in an interview in 2007, that the media are forever in ‘worship of certainty’. That is to say, that they will never stand before us and admit that they don’t know. Imagine a news reporter admitting “I don’t know who’s responsible for this” or even, “I don’t know why this happened”. They must be certain, because if they’re not, they create a situation in which we are left to ask ourselves the hard questions: Who is responsible for this?  And why did they do this? To create such an opening for reflection would undermine the position of the news media as all knowing, and I would suggest, make us more questioning of the possibility that we have some responsibility in the atrocity.

The censorship of images that sanitise (read depoliticise) the reality of atrocity, as well as the media’s fear of leaving an opening for critical space by admitting that they don’t know, leaves a public insulated from the consequences of atrocity and denies that they may be responsible in part.

I’ll finish on recalling the exact moment I lost faith in Barack Obama, because it encapsulates what I’m rambling on about in this piece. Obama said in his inauguration speech that “We will not apologize for our way of life nor will we waver in its defense”. Now, I have always believed that you have to be humble in the face of experience, that when you are confronted with an event that challenges your worldview, that perhaps even criticises your attitudes and beliefs, you should not try to remain the person you were before, to deny the event, but instead to commit to it, reflect upon it and ask questions.

When we are confronted with some little opening in the media’s narrative of how the world functions, as in the case above and the limb of some unfortunate passenger, we must not turn away from it. We cannot deny we saw it, and we should not avoid asking the questions that such an image raises.

When Obama writes that “We will not apologize for our way of life” he presupposes that we in fact understand the costs involved in our way of life. I would argue that we do not, that in fact we work hard, as a society, to avoid being confronted with the consequences of our “way of life”. We in fact should always be ready to apologise for our way of life when it is shown to bring misery to others, and we should never simply run to its defence without first thinking about what it is we are committing ourselves to.

Thank you Rob.

One Comment leave one →
  1. April 11, 2009 2:16 am

    formidable site this brill to see you have what I am actually looking for here and this this post is exactly what I am interested in. I shall be pleased to become a regular visitor :)

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