With so many wars and crises now exploding across the globe, New York Times media columnist David Carr looks at how social media are changing how the public and journalists themselves experience violence and tragedy. How is news digested when it’s new down to the second? Does the immediacy of the reporting from Gaza or Ukraine or Syria make us more involved, or does the onslaught of information result in more war fatigue, disaster fatigue, or any of the other fatigues rampant in a busy consumer society like ours?
“Bearing witness is the oldest and perhaps most valuable tool in the journalist’s arsenal,” Carr writes,
but it becomes something different delivered in the crucible of real time, without pause for reflection. It is unedited, distributed rapidly and globally, and immediately responded to by the people formerly known as the audience .
It has made for a more visceral, more emotional approach to reporting. War correspondents arriving in a hot zone now provide an on-the-spot moral and physical inventory that seems different from times past. That emotional content, so noticeable when Anderson Cooper was reporting from the Gulf Coast during Hurricane Katrina in 2005, has now become routine, part of the real-time picture all over the web. …
The public has developed an expectation that it will know exactly what a reporter knows every single second, and news organizations are increasingly urging their correspondents to use social media to tell their stories—and to extend their brand. (Unless the reporter says something dumb. Then, not so much.)
Carr quotes Susan Sontag from a 2002 New Yorker essay on “the perennial seductiveness of war.”
“Making suffering loom larger, by globalizing it, may spur people to feel they ought to ‘care’ more,” she wrote. “It also invites them to feel that the sufferings and misfortunes are too vast, too irrevocable, too epic to be much changed by any local, political intervention.”
So now that war comes to us in real time, do we feel helpless or empowered? Do we care more, or will the ubiquity of images and information desensitize us to the point where human suffering loses meaning when it is part of a scroll that includes a video of your niece twerking ? Oh, we say as our index finger navigates to the next item, another one of those .
Of course, it’s not an either/or. One person can both care and be emotionally numb within a day or a second. Either way, as Carr writes, “When a trigger gets pulled or bombs explode, real people are often on the wrong end of it. And bearing witness to the consequences gives meaning to what we see.”