Thursday, August 18, 2005

Food for thought - The power of images

(My local newspaper column. This post was inspired by this one by Doug Groothuis.)

Something has happened to the news. I wonder if you've noticed a change?

I noticed it on holiday when I was reading the newspaper. Then when I came home I noticed it on the RTE news; one report in particular stood out.

Towards the end of July there was a news report on the 6.01 evening news bulletin concerning vandalism of a parish church, school and community centre in Moycullen, Co Galway. Quite rightly, the whole tone of the report was one of disgust and outrage. Yet in the footage that accompanied this report the camera zoomed in and panned across the walls so that we could see the exact terms used in the sexually explicit and vulgar graffiti. We were left in no doubt as to what four-letter obscenities had been scrawled and sprayed.

Given that the newsreaders would not have been permitted to read what was daubed, why was it permissible to display it? As a father of a little girl I have no desire for her to grow up using such language. If my daughter was at an age where she could read, I would not allow her to read books with such explicit language - yet in the act of watching the news she would have been subjected to it.

Bizarrely, it was almost as if RTE news was doing the vandals work for them - the vandals had a message they wanted to convey and RTE happily conveyed it for them.

I don't think it's a one off either. It seems to be part of a growing trend amongst news reports to be more gritty (I almost typed 'grotty'!) and realistic. It used to be that we would see a distant shot of a body covered with a white sheet, now the camera often zooms in to show the blood seeping through. Close-up shots of injured bomb victims have become much more common in the newspapers.

I'm not convinced that just because an event has happened that I need to see it in graphic detail. There are some images that should not be shown. Not merely extremely gruesome images, but indecent things also. It might be news, but there are times when decency looks away. St Augustine wrote about this 1600 years ago in words that have a curiously modern ring to them:

"What pleasure is to be found in looking at a mangled corpse, an experience which evokes revulsion? Yet wherever one is lying, people crowd around to be made sad and to turn pale. To satisfy this diseased craving, outrageous sights are staged in public shows."

He goes on to describe such curiosity as a vice, a sin.

Images are powerful, and burn themselves into the memory for much longer than verbal descriptions. News broadcasters and newspaper editors have a responsibility to their public to choose wisely what they show. Because the more they show, the more they shape society. What we see influences how we think. The more filth and violence we see, the more desensitised to filth and violence we become.

And so far I'm only thinking about the news. This doesn't even begin to touch on the vast variety of other programmes and advertising, and their use of images.

But as well as there being a burden on broadcasters, there lies a burden on us as well to take care over what we look at. Mankind is made in the image of God, and certain images are not befitting to that dignity.

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