Going to the videotape
A few weeks ago, the Sun-Herald of Biloxi, Miss. posted video on its Web site, showing the beating death of a jail inmate.
The video shows, in graphic detail, Jessie Lee Williams being kicked, stunned with a Taser, hog-tied before being placed in a chair and struck several other times. (http://www.sunherald.com/388/story/136200.html) A former jailer, Ryan Teel, was found guilty of using excessive force in Williams’ fatal beating.
The public may have never seen nor heard about the incident, if not for surveillance video taken at the jail and the newspaper’s public-record requests asking that documents from the case be unsealed.
An editorial from the newspaper said, “We have known that the ultimate truth was contained on the videotape of that deadly night in the booking area, and we have resolutely fought to have the tape released so that its owners, the people of Harrison County, could see for themselves what had transpired in their jail.”
The editorial goes on to say, “Our unflinching efforts to obtain the tape, and to post it, are consistent with a newspaper’s duty to fight on behalf of the public’s right to know. In most cases, as in this matter, if we do not engage in that effort, no one else will.”
I think about other ways where video has put a face on some type of scandal. I think about Marion Berry taking a couple of hits on a crack pipe in a hotel room. What about former Virginia Sen. George Allen’s “Macaca” incident?
To put it in a different perspective, how would things have been different if Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward received video of people breaking into the Watergate hotel or a camera in the Oval Office with Bill Clinton and Monica Lewinsky….or well, maybe not that one, but you get the idea…
In J-school, we were always told to “follow the paper trail.” Well, now that we are in the digital age, it seems like we should change that to say, “Let’s go to the videotape.”
Unfettered access to those in power, a push for government transparency and a vigorous defense of the First Amendment are perhaps more important now than ever before. Join us as we fight for the public’s right to know as an SPJ Supporter. Or, if you’re a journalist, we welcome you to stand with us as a Professional, Student or Retired Member.