Near the end of my television reporting career, I worked on a story about substandard housing in Kansas City. To my surprise, several landlords were willing to take questions about their properties.
I told my boss about their cooperation. Great, he said. But you need to do an ambush interview of a landlord. You know, for the promo.
I recalled that incident this week as the nation argued over undercover videos at Planned Parenthood and police body camera videos.
We’re entering a do-it-yourself video age, as you may have noticed. Virtually everyone owns a cellphone capable of capturing high-quality images and distributing them to the public.
And we sure get them: piano-playing cats, cute kids, stupid stunts, miraculous sporting events. YouTube posts 300 hours of video every minute.
Fifty years ago, video of a tornado was rare. Today, amateur videographers capture every violent storm.
Almost all of this is a good thing. Video images are extraordinarily powerful — seeing and hearing an event usually provides more information than a description of it. And secret recording can clarify the facts, too. Richard Nixon resigned 41 years ago this week largely because of audio recordings in the Oval Office.
Yet we should be careful precisely because moving images seem so real. Video is easily manipulated. The very act of video editing distorts reality. The lens can’t capture as much as the eye — or provide depth perception. Videos start and stop, unlike the real world.
Video distortions are rarely a problem in news because reporters and photographers still try very hard to match their work with the facts. When a video producer has a point of view, though, motive is an important thing to consider.
My ambush interview was real. Was it reality? Harder to say.
Approaching video evidence with caution does not mean disregarding it. The undercover videos from Planned Parenthood may teach us something important about the organization, and a judge’s decision to bar publication of the images is almost certainly unconstitutional. But we need to consider the videos in context before reaching a conclusion.
Same thing for police body cameras. They’re important, powerful tools when viewed correctly, but as part of the evidence, not the whole thing.
We’re nearing a time when everything we do will be subject to video review. Those images will be close to reality, not reality itself — something we’ll all want to keep in mind.
To reach Dave Helling, call 816-234-4656 or send email to firstname.lastname@example.org.