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David Bennett

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November 29, 2013

Television News Cameras and the Observer Effect

November 29, 2013 | By | No Comments

There is a distinct power in the act of observation. Both in the world of quantum mechanics, where the life of a cat hangs in the balance, and in the messy world of human behavior. In my last post, I discussed how the existence of video footage of an event should fundamentally alter how historians write about it, since what they write must compete directly with that footage in the minds of their audience. In this post, I will argue that the television news camera cannot be seen as a passive observer of events, but instead must be recognized as a participating force.

Still of a moving image from the Danville Civil Rights Rally (WDBJ Television Roanoke, VA)

Due to its role as a link to the larger world, the television news camera exercises a clear power over its subjects, evoking plain displays of fascination, fear, and shame in the people it records. The U.S. civil rights movement was one of the first major news events to occur after television ownership reached its saturation point in the late 1950s, and the news footage broadcast at that time documents this interaction between camera and observer in many different ways. Participants often look into the cameras with wide grins and looks of fascination. Children stare at the camera with intense interest or hints of playful shyness. Reporters are even more keenly aware of the camera’s influence, and use it often. In one sequence, for example, NBC Reporter John Chancellor uses a microphone to halt the mob of angry, white Mississippi protesters that is charging him by saying, “I don’t care what you’re going to do to me, but the whole world is going to know it.” (1) His comment causes the mob to disperse, perhaps due to fear of legal consequences. In other sequences, interviewees refuse to appear on camera out of fear of retribution from the community.

Reporter interviewing reluctant student.

During the 1957 Little Rock desegregation crisis, one of the few white female Arkansas students to speak out against the anti-integration protests also adamantly refused to show her face on camera for obvious fear of violent reprisal.  At the reporter’s request to “turn around so the camera can see” her, she says, “I won’t take any films. I’m sorry sir, but it … it won’t help me at all” (2).

WSB-TV newsfilm clip of white demonstrators protesting court-ordered school desegregation

During the 1960 New Orleans desegregation crisis, footage shows an anti-integration group being pelted with water from local firemen in an attempt to quell the riots.  One young woman at the head of the crowd is shown shouting, ripping pages from a book, and throwing them at the firefighters. At first, she yells, “Stop it,” multiple times to the firemen, but when she sees the camera recording the scene, she turns in its direction and shouts, “Come on, stop it!” (3). In each of these cases, participants in historical events exhibit clear emotional reactions to the camera’s presence, altering their behavior.

The camera’s link to a larger televisual audience can also empower the individuals being observed. Being filmed offers individuals a unique opportunity to connect to a broad audience base. Young white protesters in the New Orleans desegregation crisis see the camera as a focal point for their hate and stare into it as they march by, shouting “Two, four, six, eight, we don’t want to integrate!”(3).  Other footage shows protesters proudly displaying confederate flags for the camera, shaking their fists as they chant.  Even politicians took advantage of the new opportunity television news coverage offered.  During the Little Rock desegregation crisis, Arkansas Governor Orval Faubus, Vice President Richard Nixon, and President Eisenhower constantly used television news to promote their views on integration. (4) On television, Governor Faubus states that “blood will run in the streets if Negro people should attempt to enter Central High School.” (5) Even local figures such as Daisy Gabrielle, a local white mother who crossed the New Orleans desegregation line to allow her daughter Yolanda to attend the same school as Ruby Bridges, became national celebrities after appearing on television.  When Daisy’s husband was fired from his job for allowing his daughter to go to school, the television public sent money to the family to help them survive. (6)  The cameras brought their very local struggle to the nation, and in return the nation made them into celebrities. Here, again, the camera plays a fundamental role in the development of historical events.

WSB-TV newsfilm clip of interviews the Gabrielle family

Although it is important for historians not to ignore television news coverage of events, given the role of the camera in shaping those events, it would be dangerous for historians to assume that film footage stands as a simple factual representation. Rather, we must look at television news coverage as part of the historical record, a primary document, which we must critically evaluate. And in so doing, we must not only analyze how the footage has shaped our collective thoughts and memories of the events, but also deconstruct the footage in an attempt to discern what forces produced the images shown.


1) Gene Roberts and Hank Klibanoff The Race Beat, 155.
2) WSB-TV newsfilm clip of reporters interviewing students who leave school to protest integration by the “Little Rock Nine” at Central High School, Little Rock, Arkansas, 1957 September 25, WSB-TV newsfilm collection, reel 0843, 56:57/58:11, Walter J. Brown Media Archives and Peabody Awards Collection, The University of Georgia Libraries, Athens, Ga, as presented in the Digital Library of Georgia. Minutes mark: 0:10 – 0:37 (accessed November 28, 2013)
3) WSB-TV newsfilm clip of white demonstrators protesting court-ordered school desegregation; city and state officials urging parents to discourage their children from demonstrating; people injured by the demonstrating mob in the hospital; and debates by state legislators, New Orleans and Baton Rouge, Louisiana, 1960 November 16, WSB-TV newsfilm collection, reel 0912, 6:17/12:20, Walter J. Brown Media Archives and Peabody Awards Collection, The University of Georgia Libraries, Athens, Ga, as presented in the Digital Library of Georgia. Minutes Mark: 5:05-5:24, and 4:53-4:56.(accessed November 28, 2013)
4) Clete Roberts Special Report: The Human Explosion KNXT-TV, Los Angeles, CA 1957 available online at Television Museum, mms://pictron.museum.tv:80/MGWMS/MBC/TV Radio News/TV_01880/stream0.asf  (accessed February 7, 2009).
5) Daisy Bates, The Long Shadow of Little Rock (New York: D. McKay, 1962), 61.
6) WSB-TV newsfilm clip of interviews with Police Chief Joseph Giarrusso, the Gabrielle family, and Mayor deLesseps Morrison as well as images of the community of New Orleans, Louisiana, 1960 November, WSB-TV newsfilm collection, reel 0251, 25:00/35:41, Walter J. Brown Media Archives and Peabody Award Collection, The University of Georgia Libraries, Athens, Ga, as presented in the Digital Library of Georgia, available online at http://crdl.usg.edu/do:ugabma_wsbn_39378 (accessed November 28, 2013).

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