The new eye on news

A weekly column from Jim Taylor.

If we ever had a day without house fires, car accidents, or political battles, our local news channel might have trouble filling its regular half hour.

I say that with no disrespect. It’s a simple reality of video. Disasters leave devastation that can be shown visually, after the fact – blood stains, smashed vehicles, charred buildings….

But when something good happens, you have to be there to catch it. Even a few seconds can be too late – the moment has passed.

That’s why the mainstream media rarely show acts of good news (except for scheduled events like handing over a cheque or opening a building). Journalists simply cannot be everywhere at once.

Thus, when a second earthquake hit Christchurch, New Zealand, most visual coverage focused on broken buildings, toppled steeples, crumpled roads… Those don’t disappear before the video cameras arrive.

Christchurch itself, a classmate writes, “is short of water. All drinking water has to be boiled. The sewer systems are badly damaged, so no showering or flushing of toilets is allowed. Much of the city is without electricity; gas services have been turned off. Authorities are encouraging those who are able, to leave…”

But television did not show you people outside the quake zone throwing their homes open to total strangers. Because the news cameras weren’t there.

Bob and Nola Warrick returned from Canada to Queensland in Australia, after the floods. Everywhere, they heard stories of kindness and generosity.

One couple abandoned their home, and boat. When they returned, they found their boat still there. A note in it said: “Thank you for leaving your boat… I rescued 16 people — hope you don’t mind”!

When conventional communications broke down, the local telephone company provided everyone in town with a cellphone and $50 worth of prepaid calls.

Police ordered a woman to evacuate as waters rose. She was moving her books to the top floor of her house. A few minutes later, the police returned “with two rough looking labourers ‘looking for something to do’.”

Bob Warrick described “a neighbour in her 80s who was helped by a lesbian couple — and who had to revise some long held convictions!”

But unless one had a video camera right there, those moments would never appear on the news.

That may be changing, though.

Most media pundits attribute the uprisings in North Africa and the Middle East to social networking. Colleague Bob Rymarchuk argues that they’re mistaken. Social networking is simply an updated form of personal letters and gossip. It’s necessarily second hand – events re-told after they happen.

But today’s cellphone cameras enable a viewer to be right there. To see for oneself the crowds, the explosions, the bullets…

Until now, big video cameras and security systems operated under the umbrella of the ruling powers. Inevitably, they reflected the authority’s viewpoint.

“History,” says a quote attributed to Winston Churchill, “is written by the victors.”

Cellphone cameras, by contrast, are everywhere. They’re just as likely to show events from the victims’ viewpoint.

That tilts the balance of coverage. Perhaps forever.

 

 

 

Jim Taylor welcomes comments. Send e-mails to rewrite@shaw.ca