Arielle Emmett’s article, Too Graphic, discusses the feeling that some critics have been expressing lately with regards to the media’s seeming lack of taste or tact when displaying graphic images, especially in the wake of the earthquake in Haiti. Going into it, I didn’t really have much of an opinion, one way or the other. I like to think that I have a pretty high threshold when it comes to graphic images, and like many I suppose that I have a morbid curiosity. When passing a car wreck I can’t help but crane my neck to see if there is carnage, I suppose it’s a natural human instinct. Sometimes I regret having seen what I’ve seen though, and it makes me wish I were a little less curious.
What made me see it differently was the part of Emmett’s piece where she quotes the Haitian elementary school principal, Valerie Payen-Jean Baptiste, saying “Seriously, is this cruelty really necessary to mobilize massive humanitarian action?” Suddenly, my mind raced with all of the graphic images I’ve been exposed to over the years, and it occurred to me that the answer, unfortunately is yes, yes it is.
What the intended effect of displaying all of those unbelievably graphic and disturbing images that poured out of Haiti in the days following the disaster was, was to mobilize those of us in the modern world to be moved to the point of action and/or donation. Haiti, for as geographically close to us as it is, is light years behind in terms of infrastructure, as a result of decades of corruption, disorganization and crippling poverty. It takes a lot to move us in the name of humanity, however. We have been exposed to so many graphic images, from World War II, The Holocaust, Vietnam, and even the World Trade Center attacks of September 11th, that you basically have to bombard us with tragic images to affect us. Plus, with so many “tragedies du jour” hitting the news cycle, there is a short and critical window for getting your message across. The next Katrina, Sandy Hook, or Oklahoma City Bombing is right around the corner, waiting to suck the sympathy away from your cause. You have to strike while the iron’s hot.
While it’s not good for us, shock is what sucks us in and sells us. It always has been. Think back to the image of Lee Harvey Oswald being shot and killed coming out of court. That image is so old that it’s in black and white, harkening back to a time when we were supposedly much more rigid and moral, yet that image was widely distributed and provided a type of catharsis that a grieving nation desperately needed. The critics can complain all they want; you can’t fight human nature, at least not on that front.