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Thursday, September 11, 2014

The Video Effect?

A problem with the increasing ubiquitousness and (perceived) power and accuracy of video is that we (the public, judicial fact-finders, prosecutors making charging decisions, everyone) are no longer moved by testimony and descriptive evidence, by verbal descriptions of events. Only video will influence, persuade, or even trigger a response.

We got a sense of this during the Ferguson protests, where video, especially television reporting, was the topic of conversation. The Ray Rice story, as it has developed this week, is driving this point home.

The Ravens (who cut Rice) and the NFL (who suspended Rice indefinitely) did not act with any sense of seriousness (the original two-game suspension was a joke) until the video from inside the elevator was released on Monday. NFL Commissioner (for now) Roger Goodell said he felt compelled to act because"what we saw yesterday was extremely clear, it was extremely graphic, and it was sickening." But reports indicate that the story Rice told Ravens officials was consistent with what was shown on the video--he did not tell a story of self-defense or of her hitting him first or of both people throwing punches (Ravens officials seem very proud that Rice did not lie to them, although he apparently lied to his teammates). Goodell insists that Rice's story to them was more ambiguous, although we can ask why the NFL never compared notes with Ravens officials and draw conclusions from the inconsistency. [Update: According to this report, four people with knowledge of conversations state that Rice told Goodell in June that Rice had "hit"or "punched" his fiancee and that there was no "ambiguity" about what he said or what happened].

The point is that the video released Monday provided the Ravens with exactly no new information, and the NFL with little that it should not already have known. The "sickening" acts were known to everyone on the inside. Yet Goodell did not feel compelled to act until confronted with video images; a narrative would not do the trick. Of course, some of that can be blamed on the media and the public, which responded with renewed outrage only after seeing the video themselves, thus backing Goodell into a corner. Josh Lewin has a nice satirical take on this.

The old saw is that a picture is worth 1000 words and perhaps video is worth twice that. But the relative value of visual compared with verbal evidence should not be taken to render verbal evidence entirely worthless. I would be quite concerned if we begin to see--in court and in public debate--a video-evidence version of the CSI Effect.

Posted by Howard Wasserman on September 11, 2014 at 09:31 AM in Howard Wasserman, Law and Politics | Permalink

Comments

"A problem with the increasing ubiquitousness and (perceived) power and accuracy of video is that we (the public, judicial fact-finders, prosecutors making charging decisions, everyone) are no longer moved by testimony and descriptive evidence, by verbal descriptions of events. Only video will influence, persuade, or even trigger a response."

I disagree with your interpretation; a more plausible
and far more likely explanation is that the people running
the NFL didn't care what Rice did until the evidence was
made public. Just as if until written evidence became
public, the people running things frequently deny what
happened until they can't get away with it anymore.

Posted by: Barry | Sep 11, 2014 4:20:11 PM

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