June 20, 2009, is the two-year anniversary of an event that shook both the media landscape as well as humanity. As a culture, we did not realize how far-reaching the new age of civic journalism would be. At that point, our society had three years of Twitter, four years of YouTube and even more years of Facebook experience—all tools that journalists of this younger generation must (and do) utilize, or face being left behind.
But June 20, 2009, was something the social media environment was not prepped for. On that day, Neda Agha-Soltan died, with images of her death placed on YouTube, spreading virally across the Web. (Please be advised that this video is extremely graphic and depicts the actual death of a person.)
Some background is needed for the Neda video. During the 2009 Iranian election protests of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Neda, a young Iranian woman, was heading toward an area where protests were occurring. She had gotten out of her car, which was stuck in traffic. It was then that an Iranian paramilitary official shot Neda in the chest, the consequences then taped on the cell phone video.
This video of Neda certainly does not disregard other leaks of injustice. For example, as journalist Amy Goodman pointed out in her book “Breaking the Sound Barrier”, the gruesome images and videos of protesting Burmese monks being murdered in 2007 surreptitiously made their way onto Burma’s cell phone and Internet lines, only to be “largely stifled by government censorship.”
The Neda video was different, though. It hit news organizations and social media within hours of occurring—and it spread like wildfire. It was the contemporary video that both haunted yet humbled. It was the video that was emotionally crippling yet politically inspiring. It was the video that both gave light to a large rush of political uprisings in the Middle East yet also gave a face to a martyr, a face that illustrated how people were literally dying for their basic human rights that we take for granted. But most of all, it was the video that everyone could see. It was, and still is, easily accessible. It was the video that showed the true power social media had, that non-journalists were the new journalists, that there was a new precedent of digital ethics on display.
Today, we currently live in a digital communications age that is being shaped by civic journalism and the technologies associated with it. With all of the recent popular uprisings taking place—from Tunisia and Egypt to Bahrain and Syria—it has become clear that social media must be used as a means to disseminate information, but we still must use our ethical and moral compasses to ensure the information is distributed properly and accurately.
The impacts of this video were far greater than millions of video hits and the tag of a “viral” video. The anonymous video, which was originally sent to the Guardian and Voice of America before reaching the mainstream media, actually received a George Polk award. The Polk awards are some of the most esteemed journalism awards in the United States, and this was the first time in the 61-year history of the Polk awards that an anonymous work won. The video clearly had reverberated across the Internet, spurring heavier coverage of the Iranian protests and numerous blog and news posts debating everything from the political ramifications of Neda’s death to societal reactions to viewing death through such a close—and quick—avenue.
Columbia University’s Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma blog was one example of a publication that examined the societal implications of the quick digital publishing of the Neda video. Guest writer Steve Gorelick, a professor of media studies at Hunter College, wrote:
“Neda’s journey to martyrdom is probably inevitable. She is a potent and heroic symbol who might yet be the impetus for revolution. But she was also a human being. And keeping that simple fact in mind might just be our fundamental challenge in a digital world that creates, produces, and distributes images of potential martyrs with a speed that is at once dizzying and terrifying.”
Gorelick touched on another point: the ethical dilemmas associated with death and the martyrs created through that captured death have always been around, but never at this pace. Death and gore has always been an issue for journalists, but never has death and gore been able to be watched over and over again. Videos, in many instances, have supplanted still images. Today, a traumatic event happens, bystanders capture the moment, and it could be uploaded to any video-sharing site or news site within minutes or even seconds. This simply wasn’t an option during the 1968 Saigon execution, for example. Photographer Eddie Adams was only able to snap photographs of an executed Vietcong prisoner and then had to wait for the prints from a darkroom. The process to publish the photos and transmit them back to the United States took days. Had Adams had a smartphone, he could’ve uploaded a high-quality photo of the traumatic event, and perhaps the anti-Vietnam War movement—one of the largest anti-war movements in U.S. history—could’ve gathered a whole slew of supporters.
The crux of the Neda video, though, is the ethical implications and precedents it has now set for these types of video uploads. Numerous amateur videos continue, such as violent demonstrations in Syria and the recent case of Christopher Whitman, a 25-year-old U.S. student who was shot by Israeli forces with a tear gas canister during a nonviolent demonstration near Palestinian land.
As some print media editors have realized this past decade, the old tests for acceptability of controversial photos—such as the “breakfast test”—are obsolete:
“…Minneapolis Star Tribune photo editor Mike Zerby said, “the standard line is ‘we don’t bleed on your eggs.’ But I think at this particular newspaper we’ve grown past that."
Serge McCabe, photo director, The (Portland) Oregonian: "We have to use some of these photos sometimes or else nothing ever changes. The war in Vietnam really didn’t start drawing to an end or start drawing a lot of protest until those images started coming in."
Does the same hold true for the videos of today, which are shared at a rate that print newspapers could never match? Are we in era of digital communications where nearly anything is fair game? As Bill Mitchell of the Poynter Institute indicates, this era of civic journalism certainly asks non-journalists to disseminate the news, in its most true form, amidst massive cutbacks and areas of low coverage.
“As news resources decline and the capacity of non-journalists to document such moments grows, a new challenge is emerging: the wherewithal to collaborate with and enhance the storytelling of the people on the scene when journalists are nowhere to be found,” Mitchell said. “Journalists’ diminished capacity to witness, driven in part by dwindling financial resources, is aggravated when authorities try to control the flow of information by shutting down news bureaus, refusing visa extensions for some journalists, and taking others into custody.”
Of course, there is a certain intrinsic trust now placed with all civic journalists out there: That uploaded videos are, in fact, authentic, undistorted and fully representative of the situation. It is also pertinent that shared videos that are redistributed in other channels such as Twitter, Facebook or specific news sites should be both checked for verification and reposted with credit and authenticity as well. Those ethical questions of accuracy never waver. But ethical questions of whether a controversial video, involving gore and/or death in this instance, have pretty much been answered: Show the truth, as it happened.
There will always be gray areas with scenarios like the Neda video. These types of images depict humanity in its most vulnerable and horrifying state and simply are not easy to stomach. In a new era, a new millennium, of progressive video sharing and civic journalism, these uploads can certainly be compared with controversial journalistic images of the past. Accuracy and truthful display are ethical certainties in these digital cases, but honest dissent should not be silenced based on unpleasant images alone. The two years since Neda’s death have only reinforced this.
Bob Herman is a 2009 journalism graduate from Butler University who believes in progressivism and the hope that the world will find social, environmental and economic justice. You can email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.