Do we have a moral duty to watch the painful videos from a mass shooting?

We should see what they see.
We should see what they see.
Image: AP Photo/John Locher
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As news viewers take in the details of last night’s horrific mass shooting in Las Vegas, they are confronted with a difficult choice: whether or not to watch graphic video shot by people at the concert while the shooting was happening. It’s hard to avoid, given that it’s showing up on TV, via online news, and on social media.

It’s a problem we’re confronted with often these days: The proliferation of smartphone, security, and police cameras—not to mention the disturbing video clips distributed by terrorist groups like ISIS—have given us the option to virtually relive a traumatic violent event at any time, including during its immediate aftermath.

The question that’s raised with every incident: Should we look away? Or are we morally obliged to watch? Even if we are, is it mentally healthy to watch?

The ethics argument: Watching violent videos may make us more apt to intervene

There may be some moral value to watching such videos, according to a just-published study by Matthew Grizzard, an assistant professor of communication at the University at Buffalo. They allow the public to see the actual consequences of human tragedies,” he said in a news release, and thus they may prompt action.

In an experiment, Grizzard and a team of communication researchers asked three groups of people to watch different videos of Islamic State executions by gunfire. One depicted the prisoners being driven to an execution site, where the film ended, and a second stopped just before the first shot was fired. The third showed the event in its gruesome entirety. “When subjects watched the most graphic clip they felt the most acute levels of anger and disgust, moral emotions that predicted increased desire for intervention,” Grizzard found.

However, he said in an interview with Quartz this morning (Oct. 2),“It’s so hard to talk about this question today. Seeing the videos from Las Vegas, it really hits home and influences you emotionally.”

Grizzard still feels it’s important to see the videos, exactly because of the visceral reaction they provoke. We seem to be most moved by vivid ugliness of dark realities, Grizzard says, which is why anti-cigarette ads are increasingly incorporating graphic images of oral cancer and other diseases. In the case of Las Vegas, acting might mean joining efforts to increase gun control, for instance.

Yes, desensitization is a risk, he acknowledges. But he points out that doctors have no choice but to become desensitized to the brutality and pain they see, but it doesn’t prevent them from treating patients. “You have to control those reactions in order to act sometimes,” he says.

What’s more, not seeing images has not helped us, he points out. And, when events happen far away, there’s a bigger danger of not caring and not being able to empathize with the victims, nor respond. Regarding Syria’s civil war, for example, “it’s even more pressing that we see the violence because it’s not part of our daily lives.”

Supporters of the Black Lives Matter movement in the United States have made similar arguments. Videos of police brutality against black Americans have allowed white Americans to witness the injustices that others have experienced for decades—if people actually watch them.

But is it psychologically healthy to watch brutal videos?

On a personal level, the question of whether to watch a potentially disturbing video becomes more complicated. A major study of adults who watched an average of eight hours of footage in the three to five days following the attacks on the World Trade Center in New York, on Sept. 11, 2001, showed they exhibited increased levels of stress effects.

Citing that research on its website, the US Department of Veteran affairs provides the following guidance to people treating or dealing with post-traumatic stress disorder:

If you find that you feel anxious or stressed after watching a news program, if you feel you cannot turn off the television or participate in recreational activities, or if you have trouble sleeping, you may want to consider limiting the amount and type of media coverage that you are viewing.

Some strategies that may be useful include limiting viewing just prior to bedtime, reading newspaper and journal articles rather than watching television, and talking to people about the attack as a means of gathering information

Anyone who is concerned about their mental health—not only people diagnosed with PTSD— should probably take these suggestions seriously. A psychology professor at University of California Irvine who researched the psychological impact of repeated viewings of the Boston marathon bombing in 2013 found that, as the New Republic reported, symptoms of an “acute stress” response—which can include irritability, difficulty sleeping, and hyper-vigilance—were actually more intense following multiple exposures to the event from news sources than they were in actual witnesses. What’s more, “repeated media exposure led to nine times the likelihood of reporting symptoms of PTSD.”

But questions about whether watching the videos actually causes the distress, or even if it’s the shocking nature of the images that increases the risk of secondary trauma, remain unanswered.

Finally, in some situations, as in the case of a person who has experienced racial violence watching a scene of police brutality, a sense of danger and helplessness may worsen the psychological stress. When African-Americans are repeatedly targeted and nothing changes to protect the community, “the perception that the perpetrators of violence face no consequences for their actions can transform that trauma into terror,” Phillip Atiba Goff, president of the Center for Policing Equity and social psychologist, told the Huffington Post.

What about the responsibility of social media companies?

After all traumatic public crises, there are calls for social media sites to block the inevitable sharing of violent videos, but whether they should do so depends on your view of what role social media should play in our news and communications landscape.

If sites like Twitter and Facebook are essentially news outlets, in your view, you might apply the logic of New York University journalism professor Jay Rosen, who, writing for CNN after two television journalists were killed on live TV in Virginia in 2015, argued that news organizations are often irresponsible and opportunistic in showing gruesome videos.

The usual defense—that the gruesome video is newsworthy, and not simply an opportunity to profit from dark curiosities—seems disingenuous, Rosen wrote:

Cable TV will still go wall-to-wall. The tabloids will do their thing. The morning news shows will all feature “the tragedy,” making a mockery of that word. It will be a huge story for a few days, and right there the incentive for the killers will remain. The guns will be just as plentiful, the debate about them just as hopeless. And somewhere in that script will be these little ethics seminars with college professors that media producers love to stage while they’re trying to reach the victims’ families to get them to come on air.

“If you’re looking for coverage of the shootings in Virginia, you can find it on our website in black and white. No pictures, no video, no TV. Now in other news. …” That is what it would take to alter the situation, not at just one station, but across the media industry. That is nowhere on the horizon.

On the other hand, is it the job of news organizations and social media companies to make this decision for us? There are arguments for and against watching the videos, and in a culture that supports free speech, perhaps that choice should be left to the individual.

The problem with social networks, however, is that we don’t know where posts are being shared, or in what context. It’s hard to argue for the moral value of rubber-necking or morbid curiosity. And of course, as Grizzard tells Quartz, some Twitter commenters will not treat Las Vegas shooting with the gravity it deserves.

The question, he says, is how to frame such videos so that they’re a prompt to action, rather than just creating more hopelessness and apathy. “How do we structure the conversation and not say ‘Oh, there’s nothing we can do’?”