The invention and global diffusion of smartphones with both cameras and access to internet means that documenting news is now no longer simply in the hands of professional reporters. Mainstream news channels have taken to broadcasting shaky phone videos filmed during mass shootings alongside more generic studio content. This means that we, as an audience, desire complete visibility because, scarred by the premise of “fake news”, we now have access to documents containing real-life violence in a way that was previously only accessible in scripted films and series. Every victim also doubles up as reporter – the camera arrives before the ambulance.
This – in theory – should heighten our emotional response to news. But images filmed in a proximity that the audience originally recognised in a mental frame work of “this is not real, it is just a story”, now portray the undeniably real. In 2015, photographs of 3-year-old Syrian refugee Alan Kurdi’s corpse, washed ashore on Turkey’s coast, went viral. The image testified a brutal reality that put the refugee crisis on the first page of all newspapers, and confessions of empathy and outrage flooded social media. Its global broadcasting, however, also gave rise to a debate concerning itself with the consequences of constantly presenting the audience with graphic visuals.
Confronted with violence in Game of Thrones, we might experience a weird sensation of shock that we then link to both enjoyment and relaxation
Scripted portrayals of graphic violence in film and TV have always been criticised for desensitising audiences towards the real thing. But I believe that they have done something far worse: they have provided us with a narrative that allows us to have interchangeable affective responses to documents portraying reality with documents that are created artificially – without feeling bad for it.
Confronted with violence in Game of Thrones, we might experience a weird sensation of shock that we then link to both enjoyment and relaxation. Confronted with pictures of baby corpses – we feel a similar sense of shock and horror. But because we are habituated to perceiving these images in a context of – “this is not real” – it becomes far easier to excuse passive behaviours. Violence is overwhelmingly limited to the scripted screen which implies that it is not real – which means we do not have to act.
The only solution to fracture this mind-set is making the differences between real and not-real more distinct. Blood and gore have become too intrinsic to our consumption of media. But think Brecht: audiences need to become more aware that what they are about to watch will contain violence, and that this violence might seem real – but that it isn’t. For that they would have to switch over to the News Channel.