A new world of 'real video' holds all of us accountable
April 23, 2015
By Gene Policinski
"Seeing is believing," or so the saying goes.
We certainly can "see" more than ever in this era of 24/7 news, omnipresent street surveillance, police "body cams" and cell phone video — and that fits nicely into the First Amendment's role in providing for both press and citizen "watchdogs on government."
Technology now makes us all possible "witnesses" to close-up and often shocking video images of inebriated and staggering motorists stopped by police, dramatic high-speed pursuits through traffic, cringe-inducing accident clips, and officers in confrontations marked by injury or deadly force.
In earlier times, it was rare for most of us to experience any of that except through news media interviews, eyewitness accounts or through news reports taken from carefully worded official documents or courtroom testimony — most with far less drama and emotion.
Legal battles swirl from time to time around the extent to which citizens or journalists can photograph or take video of uniformed or undercover police in public confrontations or violent episodes. Court decisions generally favor the public — but sometimes that means a long wait or an expensive legal battle during which news value evaporates.
But new issues involving freedom of information, privacy, media ethics and fair trial concerns are popping up as quickly as the latest video clip challenging police actions. And while there's no obligation under the First Amendment on what we can say or write once we "see," the flood of video imagery creates some questions for us and our fellow citizens as well.
The Associated Press reports that legislators in at least 15 states are considering ways to exempt from opens record laws the video recordings of police encounters with citizens, or to limit what can be made public. Officials say the proposed laws are needed to protect the privacy of people being videotaped and to ensure fair trials — while others fear such moves are just attempts to place the brakes on a new and effective way to hold police accountable.
The impact of citizen video may never have been more immediate or effective than one showing Charleston, S.C., police officer Michael Slager shooting an unarmed African American man who appeared to be moving away from Slager. The officer was charged with murdering Walter Scott after a video of the April incident, taken by a passerby on his cell phone, disputed a written police report about the shooting, which followed a traffic stop and a struggle in a park.
As a nation, we had the opportunity to see portions of that video, repeatedly, on all major networks. The New York Times posted on its website about two weeks ago what appears to be a longer, 4:09 version that the newspaper said was provided by an attorney for Scott’s family.
The graphic nature of the shooting, the effect of repeated national showings and even the placement of the video higher or lower in the news story's text and nature of the information that accompanied the clip, all raised concerns among legal and First Amendment experts.
Clearly, posting a video is not just a simple matter of presenting a bit of news for us to "see."
The Scott clip was just one of an amazing range of videos since last summer that have sparked protests and public outrage. In just the last few days, we've seen a deputy U.S. Marshal appear to seize and shatter a phone being used by a woman taping police action; an Air Force veteran, videotaped by her daughter, attempting to wrest control of an American flag from demonstrators in Georgia and then scuffling with police; and multiple video clips from a Baltimore incident in which a man appears to have been fatally injured just before or as he was being transported in a police van.
So far, the most controversial videos seem to raise issues around the morality and legality of the incidents involved rather than simply accuracy of what the videos show. But inevitably, those issues will — and should — come up, as in the flag protest where some say publicity more than patriotism motivated the videotaping and the veteran, who has posed nude in Playboy and for an animal rights poster draped in a U.S. flag.
We should expect from both news media and from citizens who post directly to the Web the kinds of context and explanation around dramatic videos that we've come to demand from journalists and others who publish polls, provide politicians with a public platform, and present detailed investigative reports.
We need to know the motives and mission of those who take and those who post the videos. And at times, we should seek the kind of intensive scrutiny and skepticism about particularly impactful videos that might — at the furthest extent — would approach the level of dissection and examination of a written article by an expert team that led Rolling Stone magazine to retract a highly-controversial report about a gang rape at a university.
Questions are being raised about a supposed ISIS video purporting to show mass executions in Libya, and many Western news organizations regularly refuse to show videos that have more to do with recruiting new terrorists than documenting atrocities.
Granted, there's no requirement in the First Amendment's protection for free speech or a free press that what we see online or in the news, will be fair or accurate or even complete. But there's also no First Amendment prohibition against holding to those standards.
Gene Policinski is chief operating officer of the Newseum Institute and senior vice president of the Institute’s First Amendment Center. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.