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Book Review: About to Die: How News Images Move the Public by Barbie Zelizer

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We live in an image-obsessed culture, and if there is an image that can keep us from actually having to read an article, we’re likely to gawk at it, especially when that image exploits someone’s death, or rather, the moment just before someone’s death. Barbie Zelizer’s About to Die: How News Images Move the Public addresses why and how journalists exploit the use of the moment before one dies (what she calls the “as if” moment) over the actual death itself.

Many examples are offered (likely too many), but one of the most notable “as if” is that of victims jumping from the Twin Towers on 9/11. Viewers were never shown their impact of death, just victims plummeting towards it. In other words, the image of near death, or the “as if” is more about what the image represents — the symbol it becomes, rather than that person’s actual death.

Having said that, Zelizer sums up her book as such: “This book has addressed how the ‘as if’ of news pictures helps shape the response to disturbing events, often critical for a public’s sense of self: how much and what kind of information is necessary to set the interpretation of news pictures in motion, how and why it travels in so many directions, and how and why people other than journalists have been able to profit by it were key concerns in addressing the more central question of how news images move the public.”

Unfortunately, Zelizer is by no means a prose stylist. Her writing is not only incredibly repetitive, didactic, and inert, she has about a 30-page essay bloated into a 326-page book, excluding all the footnotes. It’s not that her book is bereft of points, it’s that those few points she does make, she repeats over and over again, and often get lost in a muddle of verbiage.

As in the above quote, she continually tells readers what they’ve just read. And unlike with literary criticism where a point can be repeated and shown in multiple ways, nothing Zelizer states is in need of such repetitive explanation. To put it bluntly, it’s pretty much common sense.

As example, there is one string of words that she continually repeats throughout the text. Literally, I lost count after a dozen times. In her chapter titled “Presumed Death” she states: “Presuming death, then, is a strategic coping mechanism, an act of interpretation that uses the imagination, the emotions, and contingency so as to coax journalists, news executives, officials, politicians, and viewers beyond their comfort zones enough to show and see suggestive images of death in times of disaster.”

A straightforward remark, but then, on the next page, in her chapter titled “Possible Death” she states: “Images of possible death show more detail of death than do pictures of presumed death, requiring the public to invoke less of contingency, the imagination and the emotions in engaging with what it sees.”

Tedium aside, these points (and same string of words) are mentioned over and over via use of varying examples and degrees, albeit not varying enough to avoid sounding incredibly repetitive. Zelizer argues that about-to-die images play to the emotions and imagination because they depict human suffering, anguish and also the fear of death. Yet anyone can view images of the dead bodies piled up in Dachau or Auschwitz and not only conjure up similar emotions to when one is witnessing near death images, but who is to say what image makes one person imagine or feel something more than another?

Emotions are subjective, and people have different means for imagining. Perhaps seeing a child left for dead offers up an image of this child’s mother, which in turn, causes one to imagine the mother’s story. Other than mere exploitation or fascination, seeing victims jumping out of the Twin Towers is no better or worse emotionally on an American than if one sees them upon impact.

Yet the biggest flaw is that amid Zelizer’s presumptions, she belabors the obvious. In the section discussing how the public is moved through emotion, she states that seeing people suffer makes people sad and that certain images “act as a trigger for emotional release.” Not only is this condescendingly obvious and stated many times before, there is no adequate discussion as far as how the media’s use of emotional manipulation caters to the lowest common denominator.

The one point of irony is that despite Zelizer’s argument for the imaginative and emotional results these images can have on the public, her book is not only lifeless and repetitive — it leaves one feeling empty. Zelizer argues that: “the emotions, imagination, and contingency have also been central to memory work,” (there are those string of words again) yet unfortunately there won’t be much to remember or imagine after being belabored over and over with the obvious.

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About Jessica Schneider