Thursday, August 26, 2021

Mary Angela Bock's "Seeing Justice"

Mary Angela Bock is an assistant professor in the School of Journalism at the University of Texas at Austin. She teaches courses on visual culture, gender, visual journalism and qualitative methods.

Bock is a former journalist turned academic with an interest in the sociology of photographic practice, the rhetorical relationship between words and images, and digital media.

She applied the “Page 99 Test” to her new book, Seeing Justice: Witnessing, Crime and Punishment in Visual Media, and reported the following:
By amazing coincidence, page 99 of my book, Seeing Justice: Witnessing, Crime, and Punishment, presents a seminal moment that inspired the project. Page 99 is the opening page of Chapter Five, titled, "What picture would they use?" and it opens with this vignette:
Scene: “Please don’t use his mug shot.” That was a plea from the public defender who was handling the case of Scott Demarco Newman, one of several men accused in connection with a horrifying shotgun murder of a local attorney in Des Moines, Iowa. It was 1985, and the first major trial I covered as a TV reporter. (This was long before the hashtag “whatphotowilltheyuse.”) The attorney, now a law professor at Drake University, knew that potential jurors who saw Newman’s mug shot would presume him to be guilty. Robert Rigg gave me access to his client’s school portrait, which we incorporated into coverage.
Seeing Justice blends my twenty years' of experience as a TV journalist with my academic research to examine the way visual journalists cover the American criminal justice system. Using a series of case studies, visits to actual court cases and dozens of interviews, I'm able to describe in detail the complicated “dance” between state actors -- that is police, prosecutors, court officials and so on -- with visual journalists and the way these negotiations affect the resulting news narratives.

Because photo- and video-journalism is a physical activity that requires practitioners to be on location in real time, the work is subject to what I call embodied gatekeeping -- the regulation of visual journalists' physical positioning in real time. The narratives that result from these negotiations usually favor the state, but digital technologies in the hands of everyday people are chipping away at that power structure.

The opening vignette on page 99 also points to the book's discussion of visual ethics and human rights. The use of mug shots is under debate in 2021 as more news organizations come to grips with the way digital images live forever on the internet. A published mug shot cannot be forgotten with time, and people's lives have been forever changed by these images, which connote criminality and never face online. The chapter that starts on page 99 presents this ethical debate while also describing the way social media users have discussed and shared mug shots as a means of shaming individuals such as Brock Turner, the Stanford swimmer convicted of sexual assault.

All news is constructed by real people making myriad practical decisions. This book is for anyone interested in the unintended consequences that result from these decisions, and how in turn the resulting stories affect the public’s understanding of how the system works. At bottom, these practices usually result in narratives that advance the state’s interest in legitimizing the criminal justice system.
Visit Mary Angela Bock's website.

--Marshal Zeringue