It has been reported widely that Rodney King was found dead yesterday at the bottom of his pool. For those of us over in our early forties, the video of Rodney King being beaten literally senseless by police officers in Los Angeles will stand as one of the truly brutal and horrifying media experiences of our lives. But it was also one of the first of what we now call “viral videos”. Before YouTube, before the web, the Rodney King video was everywhere. Everyone had seen it. And because it was shot by a bystander, it it was also one of the first major events of citizen journalism of the digital era.
Unfortunately, it was the start of a downhill spiral for King that lasted, on-and-off, for twenty years. We have come to think of being a viral video star as something great. It brings fame and sometimes fortune, even if only fleeting. Not all viral stars fare so well. And despite the hype, not all citizen journalism ends in liberation.
It makes me wonder what responsibility we have for protecting the identity of those who might be harmed by the things we post. We all hope that we are agents of positive change, but what if the things we decide to report on lead to increases in pain and suffering? Should that matter in our decisions? This is a live question in journalism ethics, but I’m not sure that it made the jump to the new media realm. Insofar as our blogging, reporting, and recording may cause harm, we need to be very careful about the lives that are in our hands.
On the positive side, it sounds that King came through all of his experiences with a good perspective. Spencer Bailey at the NYTimes (What Rodney King Said During One of His Final Interviews) notes:
King, whose 1991 videotaped beating by the police eventually led to riots in Los Angeles, recently published a memoir about his many hardships: depression, alcoholism, poverty. In our conversation, on how to find inner peace, he spoke about all of these subjects with the kind of candor only someone who has gone through heart-rending struggle can: “As far as having peace within myself, the one way I can do that is forgiving the people who have done wrong to me. It causes more stress to build up anger. Peace is more productive.”
Amen to that.