The general public has made videos into the ultimate proof statements of any uncertain event. TV news people commonly display amateur videos directly on-air. Do such videos offer bullet-proof reporting of any disputed occurrence? They may offer the most reliable record possible, but they can also lead to unfair, incorrect conclusions.
Once authoritative voices tell us what a video is supposed to prove, it can become the defacto truth. Many viewers may then accept the video’s “proof” like people in “The Emporer’s New Clothes,” rather than admitting that they don’t see any compelling evidence.
When law enforcement, reporters, or the general public were unsure of facts of a 1950s crime, an eyewitness statement often prevailed as a proof of what had occurred. Nevertheless, most officials understood that witness statements are notoriously unreliable.
With the advent of easy-to-use photography, affordable film, and cameras, pictures became high-value proof statements that strengthened or replaced eyewitnesses. “A picture is worth 1,000 words” became a touchstone of American culture. Nevertheless, pictures can also produce false conclusions.
More recently, however, millions of people carry phones that can instantly shoot video sequences that are much more reliable than static pictures or eyewitnesses. In parallel, there are millions of security cameras that produce video 24/7. And, at any given moment, there are scores of professionals from TV crews or law enforcement agencies shooting video in all kinds of environments.
Videos may be immediately convincing, but they can also lead viewers to unsupportable assumptions. The well-known instant replays at NFL games are good examples. A low pass play, with the football caught by a diving receiver, requires the receiver to have control of the ball before his body—usually a knee—touches the ground. The apparent catch can happen so quickly that no one can be sure that player controlled the ball before his knee touched the turf. Whether or not the field officials call the play a legal catch, either team may disagree and request officials to review the video.
The NFL video-review is the most accurate use of video as a decision-maker. Officials typically view the recorded action from at least three different vantage points. They can review a play at different speeds and freeze-frame at the most critical points. As the review proceeds, fans in the stadium see the video evidence on giant high definition screens, and millions of TV viewers see the video on their home TVs. But when the referee announces the final decision on the field, million of fans may explode in disagreement. Even the play-by-play announcers may disagree, because the video is not always definitive, even when the best professionals view it using the best professional technology. Adding to the confusion, many people claim to see proof on the video where their conclusion is only an opinion resulting from wishful thinking.
Following the end of a Donald Trump speech in March, a woman reporter named Michelle Fields stated that a Trump campaign manager named Corey Lewandowski had manhandled her and caused minor injuries as the media and campaign team pushed forward to the exits. The campaign manager denied having touched the woman. She stated that he had grabbed her arm, and nearly pulled her to the floor. At first, there was no proof, though there were witnesses who supported each side. After a day or two, a video emerged. “Aha,” said the reporter, “The video shows him grabbing my arm.” “Not true,” retorted a campaign spokesperson, “He may have touched her, but there is no proof that she faltered.”
The angry reporter pressed charges with local police, who arrested the campaign manager and referred the case to the local prosecutor. After studying the video and the law for more than a month, the prosecutor announced that the case would close with no further action. What did the video show? The prosecutor said there was insufficient evidence to pursue the case. He added that there was some evidence that supported the reporter’s charge, but that it wasn’t strong enough to warrant prosecution.
With curiosity piqued regarding the video, I watched it on a wide-screen, high-definition TV countless times. I never saw any of the detailed proof claimed by either side. The flow of the crowd never seemed to change. The campaign manager was very close to the woman and might have been touching her arm beyond the video view. She was apparently trying to say something to the candidate who seemed unaware of her.
Like the example of the NFL replay, the video proved little or nothing. The conclusion, right or wrong, required common-sense of the viewer. Because, like eyewitnesses and photos, videos don’t always provide the absolute truth.
An errant call at a football game or a questionable dustup at a political event may be annoying, but neither is life-threatening. However, when videos stand as proof statements in criminal or personal injury cases, they can become dangerous. In many situations, their widespread dissemination by TV news programs has triggered anger and violence.
Obvious examples of videos creating harmful consequences are especially common in cases involving police and minority people who perceive situations as police brutality. To protect themselves from charges, police departments have spent millions of dollars on dashcams and uniform cams, to create videos that counter brutality charges. But adding more video may just muddy the waters.
Video evidence has inherent weaknesses. It cannot report what occurred before the camera began recording. For example, the video may show a police officer appearing to beat an unarmed person. It cannot show the time sequence a few seconds earlier when the apparent victim drew a knife. In the same vein, the angle between the camera and the altercation may not show the police officer unnecessarily wielding a handgun that caused the victim to attack in self-defense. In most cases, there is no audio or the audio is garbled. Nevertheless, media people interpret the video without additional input. The result may elevate an insignificant occurrence to a symbol that builds public outrage and violence.
Bottom line: We may love our videos, but we can’t rely on them as the ultimate proof of anything. Future technology improvements may provide much clearer details, and interpolate computer-generated alternative angles. Cameras may filter and electronically clarify audio. Other improvements may make videos nearly perfect as proof statements. Until then, however, we should treat videos with skepticism similar to our acceptance of single-frame photos or eyewitnesses.