Over the weekend, front-page news in Malaysia was shots of a woman falling to her death from the 16th floor of her apartment. Apparently, she wanted to commit suicide, changed her mind and the subsequent rescue attempt failed. Her death plunge was captured in mid-flight by the cameras and duly displayed the next day. Was it necessary for the newspapers to be so graphic?
You see this sort of thing everyday, everywhere, in all types of media: newspapers, magazines, television, the Internet and if radio could broadcast pictures, you would see it there too. Brazen images of violence and death – everything is fair game now. Some would question the integrity of the media for making profit from them; some would question society’s thirst to see blood.
Certainly, the question faced by the media is a tough one: where is the line that they should not cross? On one hand it is important that the news is reported fairly and clearly. One the other hand, a certain level of social responsibility must exist. To see those images of that woman over the weekend – it would send the blood of any sane person curling. Imagining her desperation to hold on after realizing that she had made a terrible mistake to be out on that ledge in the first place; her struggle to survive, and when it seemed that she would be safe, she loses her grip and falls to her death, screaming. Difficult thoughts – made more difficult by the fact that it is true.
“Mommy, what is this?”
The problem with such gruesome displays of reality lies largely with its suitability for society, especially the children. We are already scrambling to pursue standards of suitability for what children see in the movies and the television. Shows which have a certain degree of violence is vetted as unsuitable for minors – as inefficient as this system is, its existence points to our concern for our children. We realize that the media has a strong influence and if left unattended, this influence can be damaging. Ask the people of Columbine about the consequences of minors under the influence of what they see and hear and you will get a detailed, and passionate response. But it seems, if the images we see are “real” then censorship is not needed. What difference is there in make-belief violence and “real” violence?
Pain and suffering
Considering how the images we see in the newspapers belong to real life people, and their pain is real too, it begs the question whether those portrayed are comfortable with their pain being made public. A few months ago, the front page of a local daily showed an alligator that had been caught and slit open – coming out of its stomach cavity was the body of a young boy. In the background, a hysterically crying mother can be seen. The image may excite some of us, it may disgust some of us but if seen by anyone related to the dead boy, it would be completely devastating. Publishing that image hurt everyone; then the question would be, why was it published in the first place?
Maybe it was published to satisfy us, the society. Deep rooted into the core of the human psyche, the existence of danger, action and death intrigues us. Some of us may not enjoy displays of violence, but the success of Hollywood movies that portray violence in realistic ways does suggest that a large majority of society does. The opening scene of “Saving Private Ryan” depicts young soldiers being blown to pieces in graphic detail. It went on to win on Oscar night. With this demonstrated thirst for violence, is it not a surprise that local newspapers can’t resist the urge to publish images of graphic nature? They are giving us what we crave, by doing so they are selling their newspapers. Everyone is happy. This cause and effect cycle has to change before humanity can evolve to a higher state of existence, before humans can become truly humane.
It’s difficult to explain why violence exists in human society. Unlike any other species on this planet, we routinely kill each other. We’ve fought 2 World Wars, countless of smaller wars where millions have lost their lives. That in itself is bad enough, a damning conviction on the insane nature of human existence. What doesn’t make sense is why we insist on allowing graphic representations of this violence to be published for the public. Does it mean that human society is inherently violent? On that question, the jury is still out.
Appearing in www.renungan.com 23 April 2001