Editorial: The Real Reality

By: Nu Yang

When you think about reality television, the first image that comes to mind might include a couple of wealthy housewives in a screaming match; it might include strangers living in a house as cameras document their every move; or it might include singers performing on a national stage, eager to land a recording contract.

But you simply have to change the channel to find the true meaning of reality television. As I write this editorial, the 24-hour news cycle is currently playing scenes from Baltimore, Md., where the streets are filled with protestors after Freddie Gray, a 25-year-old African American man, died under police custody, and across the world, the country of Nepal is reeling from a 7.8 magnitude earthquake that so far has claimed more than 5,000 lives and injured 9,000 people. We’re seeing firsthand the devastation—bodies being pulled from the rubble, toppled buildings, and homeless families seeking aid.

Not too long ago, these same media outlets continuously played cell phone video of the police shooting and death of Walter Scott, an African-American man killed by a white South Carolina police officer. News sites including the New York Times, Guardian, and Wall Street Journal gave readers the option to watch Scott’s tragic death unfold on their video player.

Without this video, the truth behind Scott’s death might not have been brought to light and the police officer might not have been charged with murder.

“Posting videos of killings is fairly new territory for the American press,” Philip Gourevitch, staff writer for The New Yorker, wrote in April. “(The Scott video) made inescapable a horrific murder, an act of outrageous injustice by a putative guardian of the law. Does that mean we all need to see it?”

Maybe we do. Maybe we don’t. But readers and viewers should be able to have that choice.

In this month’s cover story, Nick Schou discusses the sanitization of news, in particular how traditional media is shielding the public from graphic or offensive news. When the news is withholding the news, you know that’s a problem.

I watched the Scott video footage, and yes, it was hard to finish, but I made the decision to hit play. Imagine if the public had been shielded from that video and not even given the opportunity to view it. We never would have known for ourselves what truly happened during the last few minutes of Scott’s life.

This year’s Pulitzer Prize winner for feature photography, Daniel Berehulak, was honored for his series on Ebola in West Africa. Working for the New York Times, Berehulak spent four months documenting the horrifying disease. According to his nomination letter, Berehulak sat with Ebola patients for hours as they waited to receive medical attention. He captured emotional images like James Dorbor, an 8-year-old boy suspected of being infected with Ebola, being carried away by a medical staff dressed in yellow protective gear, and he also captured grieving relatives as a burial team prepared to remove their loved one’s body.

Both the Scott video and Berehulak’s photos could be categorized as graphic or offensive, but it’s these kinds of powerful images that the news should be broadcasting, printing, and sharing. It would be a disservice if they chose to censor the real reality.

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