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.”