A World Made In Image: Truth and Power in Nonfiction Visual Media

Awarded 1st Prize in the USC Neely Center’s 2019 Student Ethics Competition

I was first inspired to write this paper a year ago because I had started making a documentary and wanted to challenge my own assumptions of what I thought would be an ethical way to film other people.

Since my first draft, I’ve broadened the scope of this paper to address what many people consider to be an urgent issue today – the rise of “fake news”. There is a lot to talk about our society having entered a post-truth era, especially in light of the disinformation campaign that the IRA ran on social media during the 2016 elections. Unfortunately, while skepticism about the media is healthy, cynicism isn’t. In my paper, I ask the questions we’re all asking when we discuss America’s future as a potentially illiberal democracy: what truth means and why we need it, how the concept is embedded in visual media, as well as how technology has transformed our understanding of truth and media.

Visual media is exceptionally important because the amount of it, and our reliance on it, is only going to grow larger. The digital revolution has upended the traditional information hierarchy such that institutions are no longer authorities or even gatekeepers. Yet, to claim that the Internet is democratic leaves out a big part of the picture. We have begun to challenge the idea that platforms are inherently neutral but that only scratches the surface. New media institutions like BuzzFeed and Vice have emerged to claim huge portions of the consumer market by branding themselves as authentic without clearly separating advertising from news or news from entertainment. We currently lack the ability to assume responsibility because the consequences are changing so quickly and we don’t know how to trust. When we question what post-truth means, I argue that while we need to consider an alternative definition of truth that sees it as collective inquiry instead of certainty, we also need to be careful about how we regard truth because it shouldn’t be irrelevant nor an excuse to validate our own beliefs.

Moving forward, I think that a comprehensive media literacy education program is the most crucial path to pursue. The Internet has allowed for amateur production to surpass institutional content. Not only is the role of a consumer no longer as passive as it once was, but it is also no longer a permanent role. In the spirit of truth as collective inquiry, I argue that we need to develop a media literacy curriculum that includes a survey of visual media from both the consumer’s and producer’s perspectives and, more importantly, a teaching of ethics. It seems like there’s more information out there to sort through, perhaps even too much, but there’s still so little transparency and understanding when it comes to how we as a society engage in rhetorical discourse and decide how to regulate it.

But as we’re hopefully starting to realize, upholding a democracy requires consistent effort and a lot of collaboration.

Further reading:
  • Merchants of Truth: The Business of News and the Fight for Facts (2019) by Jill Abramson
  • Post-Truth, Fake News: Viral Modernity & Higher Education (2018), edited by Michael Peters, Sharon Rider, and more
  • Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind (2015) by Yuval Harari
  • Speaking Truths with Film: Evidence, Ethics, Politics in Documentary (2016) by Bill Nichols
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