The ethics of filming a fist fight

It’s not the beatdowns themselves that make World Star so disturbing; it’s how they get there. We are all videographers now, and bystanders now do the work of media outlets, and for free.

from “World Star Hip-hop: making a bankable brand out of brutality”

The Guardian, October 18, 2012

I could imagine the adrenaline rush if it happened to me–one minute, I’m casually enjoying an outdoor concert, filming a clip of my favorite song, when two rows ahead of me, a scuffle breaks out. I’ve always had two eyes, but now I have three–the eye of the camera. I know I won’t look away from the fight, but will I turn the camera off? Could I consciously will myself to ignore the action?

From Bumfights in my 20s to World Star Hip Hop in my 30s, my adult years have seen a proliferation of exploitation videos that could make the boys from Jackass second guess their legacy. Now, almost 40-years-old and worried about my family’s safety in Chicago, I’ve found myself following blogs that itemize the many crimes that happen around my neighborhood. One trend prevails in these outlets–most of the crimes are witnessed, and many are filmed.

And disgustingly, during many assaults, violations, brawls, melees, and bouts of drunken chicanery, the “videographers” enjoy chanting “World Star, huh huh, World Star, huh huh, Chiraq.”

I don’t want to sound holier than thou; I’ve gone down the YouTube holes of public fist fights more than I’d like to admit, and (having never really been in a brawl) I have a strange curiosity of how it all goes down. I’m aware, by being an occasional viewer and contributing to the oftentimes millions of views, I’m part of the problem.

But I call into question the morality of the individual that willfully films a fist fight–and not just on my blog. I teach high school students that on rare occasions fight in front of me, something every teacher since the dawn of time has likely dealt with. My reaction to the fighting students is a clear, you-know-what-you-did-was-wrong-now-you-pay-the-consequences. And they will, and hopefully they got something out of their systems which they won’t do again.

The students that I make sure I have a lengthy heart-to-heart with are the ones that pull out their phones and film the incident. These are the students that I feel need an ethical intervention.

All he did was hold up a cell phone

Nowadays, high school students don’t see the immorality of filming an altercation, and by legal standards, if they’re filming on a beach or other public place, they are not breaking the law. So when I tell them that they’ll be temporarily separated from their precious devices, they, of course, argue their side and don’t believe they’ve done anything wrong. All I can point to is the ethical questions raised (Are you celebrating violence by filming it and thus encouraging it? Are you taking advantage of an individual that may in fact be a victim?)

When those arguments fall short, I inevitably bring up a horrible incident involving three neighborhood high school students. An 18-year-old senior videotaped two of his friends playing the infamous “knock out game” with a 62-year-old man collecting cans. The man died from the impact of the punch and subsequent fall. The young man filming the incident was not involved in the altercation, only filmed it, shared it on Facebook, and is heard laughing about it on the video. He received a 30 year prison sentence.

Those students lacking proper virtue may see that the court of law perceives filming a fight as participation. And in the case of the 18 year-old-senior, it certainly was. He “participated” in that he was part of the organized structure of violence in the knock-out-game.

But what about the concert example? Would I be in the wrong for filming a fight that happens two rows in front of me? I know I wouldn’t be arrested because I’m in a public venue (unless I further provoked the fight on my video), but would it be unethical?

Kenny Chesney fans are filthy animals

The fight breaks out. In a split second, you’ve transitioned away from being an anonymous fan. But are you a rubberneck or are you a journalist? Is the camera part of the problem or part of the solution?

Depending on the severity of the incident, this footage could be used in determining the outcome of a court case. And if the footage captured something news worthy, such as the more than 50 sexual assaults that occurred at music festivals in Sweden last weekend, the footage may reach the public through blogs and online press. A video of the incident may result in prosecution, which, in turn, may mitigate the problem at future festivals.

Helping lead to the arrest of a criminal is of course a good thing. No one would argue that. I’d say that a real man (or human being for that matter) should intervene in a sexual assault even if it means putting him/herself in harms risk. But, assuming that most people don’t intervene in altercations for fear of physical abuse (as documented in a 2013 Boston Magazine article), perhaps it becomes one’s duty to film an incident with the hopes of leading to an arrest.

Assuming the relativist ideology that “every situation is different,” of course, good may sometimes come out of filming some fights while it may perpetuate violence in other situations. So, let’s watch a video as an example:

One of my favorite blogs, The AV Club, published an article this week titled “Kenny Chesney fans are filthy animals” that documented the violence, alcohol abuse, and insane amounts of littering that occur at KC concerts. Included in the article was the fight above.

I could imagine some bizarro alternative universe where I might be standing in the parking lot of Heinz Field, eagerly awaiting getting “Kennified” with my other Chesney-heads, having funneled seven Old Milwaukee’s Best beers when the situation happens before me. Maybe I’m Tweeting out to my followers that I’m having a “good ole time,” when I hear the first beer bottle rattle to the ground. Would I film this incident?

What good could result from filming this incident?

Well, if one of the men fell on the soft spot of his head and died, the person that delivered the death blow could be identified with this evidence. If that victim were my brother, of course I’d want video proof that could incarcerate the man that led to his death. Otherwise, I see no good that could come out of filming this incident.

What negatives could result from the filming of this incident? 

Sheesh, the list would be long. Knuckleheads would watch this (almost 300,000 already have) and might think this sort of behavior is appropriate. These types of videos give Americans a bad name. And if you’re a fan of Kenny Chesney, it sort of gives him a bad name. To the videographer, you might (by guys like me) get called out for being a scourge on society (as well as lily-livered) for not trying to do something to break it up. More than anything, by filming this incident, you’re propagating violence rather than being a part of the solution.

My verdict

After my second viewing of the video, I saw clear intent on the part of the videographer. He rushed in to film the fight but kept a fair distance. He zoomed in on a man getting punched on the ground. He used the eye of his camera to search for the most violent part of the fight.

This man is immoral because his intent was to share a film on YouTube that celebrated violence. His camera clearly wasn’t trying to help resolve this skirmish. He was as big a knucklehead as the guys punching each other. He’s a propagator of violence in perhaps a more destructive way that the ones being violent because he enabled hundreds of thousands of people to witness an incident that could have simply escaped public consciousness.

So, what should I do if it happens around me? 

My advice to anyone that witnesses a violent act would be to take a little time to use judgment before pulling out your smartphone to film the incident. Break it up if you can. If danger could befall you, perhaps call 911 or find someone that could assist. If the incident cannot be helped, a video could lead to an arrest. But, under no circumstances should a violent video be shared on social media, YouTube, or World Star. No good can come of that, and much harm could result in the victim. Having been a victim of the “knock out game,” I can say with confidence that I’d be a much more cynical person if someone videotaped me and the public reveled in the violence that sent me to the hospital and left me traumatized for some time.

As I tell my students, you’re including yourself in the incident when you film it. Be sure you can defend your choice, not only to a school administrator, but to yourself.

About Michael

Hello, I'm Michael Cullinane, a high school English and Journalism teacher presently working toward my Masters in Digital Storytelling, using every free moment to complete the revisions of my first novel.

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