September 8, 2014

This afternoon I decided to take a peek at the video, released by TMZ, of football player Ray Rice knocking out his fiancé (now his wife) in an elevator during what is euphemistically called a “domestic dispute.” Video had been available — and replayed endlessly — of Rice lifting and dragging his wife from the elevator, but this was the first public airing of the punch.

At first I was reluctant to look, but felt I might be asked to comment on the video either by or another news organization. The video I saw was gray and grainy and the blow went by in a flash, even in slow motion. Almost more disturbing was the view from inside of the elevator of Rice preparing to prop up the unconscious woman and drag her out.

So this is what spousal abuse looks like. I was glad I had watched it, however briefly, and I was not surprised by the subsequent news that Rice’s football team, the Baltimore Ravens, where he was a star running back, had released him.

Seeing is believing, it turns out. Seeing matters. It not only informs the public, but it forms it. It creates public outrage and outcry that pierces the shield of even such impenetrable institutions as the NFL.

Which got me thinking about the recent videos of ISIS beheading American journalists in Syria. I have not watched these videos, but I’m wondering now if I should. If it’s my duty as a citizen and a journalist. I know what the videos show, or at least I think I know. But are my inhibitions about seeing them or broadcasting them more widely a betrayal of the public’s need to know.

Imagine a scenario in which after midnight, when the kids were safe in bed, all voting Americans witnessed the brutal execution of one of those journalists? How would I feel? What would I do? What personal or political action would I take? More important, what would the consensus be? Would it just sicken us against involvement in another war? Would it demoralize us into isolationism? Or would it strengthen our resolve? Would we collectively demand of our President and Congress action against others who have lost the right to walk on the face of the earth?

These are questions, not answers. But seeing the new Ray Rice video has reminded me of the power of seeing something, not just hearing or reading about it. Seeing is not only believing. Seeing is also experiencing, which is a pre-requisite for empathy – and action.

My colleague Kelly McBride draws a key distinction: that the ISIS video was made as a work of propaganda, designed to be seen, calculated to inflame, provoke, and demoralize. The Ray Rice video was captured by a surveillance camera, which just happened to reveal an act of domestic violence that is almost by definition usually hiding behind closed doors. That smart distinction would certainly influence my decisions about whether to watch and broadcast, but would not determine them.

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Roy Peter Clark has taught writing at Poynter to students of all ages since 1979. He has served the Institute as its first full-time faculty…
Roy Peter Clark

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