Visual Media and Debate

For some years now, here in the monastery we have relied on the BBC website for news updates. The articles have, by and large, been clearly written and easily read. The increasing use of video, however, has presented us with a double challenge. First, rural Broadband makes even the highly compressed video used by the BBC sometimes difficult to accces. Second, one cannot absorb video content as quickly or critically as the written word. It is more difficult to check something a second time, and depending on the kind of reporting or commentary in use, one is affected by accidentals such as the presenter’s clarity of voice or accent. Does that matter? I think it does. The BBC is merely following a growing trend to use visual media rather than the written word to convey both events and ideas. As a result, I think our ability to read a text closely is being affected, and there is a corresponding weakness in our ability to argue a case or debate a complicated subject. When language becomes an unfamilar tool or a blunt instrument in expressing thought, the quality of thinking itself declines. To put it another way, a picture may be worth a thousand words, but it takes words to make the point.

Many years ago, when we began using podcasts and video as part of our online engagement, we were ahead of others in our adoption of the latest technologies. As time went on, and the sophistication demanded by users grew, we scaled down our efforts on the grounds that we had neither the time nor the money and human resources at the disposal of the bigger Orders and Congregations. It wasn’t all loss, however. It made us rethink our approach and this blog is one of the fruits of that rethinking. We have, as it were, decided that we must concentrate on the Word and on the merely human words that attempt to lead others to him. I said yesterday I thought it imperative that there should be a renewal of the Church so that we live our Christian values more deliberately and convincingly, but is such a renewal possible if even our faith comes to us in the equivalent of sound bytes and video clips? Are we in danger of losing something precious as video becomes for many the communication norm?

I have probably overstated the case, but I think it is worth pondering. As we draw closer to the General Election, I notice that the number of video clips being posted on Social Media is increasing. They have an impact, of course they do, but whether they help us think through the many complicated questions we need to decide, I am not so sure. It may be I am simply an old fuddy-duddy. I admit to loving words and the beauty and clarity they bring to our appreciation of both the abstract and the concrete. Above all, I value them because they reflect, however imperfectly, the creative Word of God. May all our words today be such as build up rather than tear down.


10 thoughts on “Visual Media and Debate”

  1. I’m 27 and also dislike the prevalence of videos when it comes to news stories. I grew up loving technology, but my household was slightly behind the average one with no TV or computer so the technology I was in love with was radio. I did hope for a computer so I could visit sites like the BBC website (as I did on my visits to the library) but technology has moved so quickly and become so far away from what it was just a few years ago that it’s difficult for anybody to keep up.

    Even university courses are becoming more visual, which is a shame because university is where you should have the opportunity to engage with words and more complex arguments. I have just finished a one year course where we were asked to do a lot of PowerPoint presentations and insert tables into our reports rather than develop arguments or write in full sentences. I could almost feel my mind becoming worthless.

  2. I’m with you too. Quite honestly, I sometimes turn on the subtitles so I can read what people are saying, but I really prefer to read articles and comments so I can mull over the arguments and discussion. Soundbite comments during the Election haven’t really helped the debate in my view, particularly on important issues like national security.

    There was a debate on Facebook yesterday started by one of my old friends and I provided a link to yesterday’s blog because I thought that you had covered the subject very well on ‘Where Angels Fear To Tread’. It is impossible to immediately correct something you said in an interview unless you are very quick, but writing it down and carefully reviewing and even checking the actual post and, if necessary, editing that if a very valuable practice.

    Even the church is getting quite lazy on occasion by just giving a website address when many people still cannot access the internet, of if they can, only have a tenuous and slow connection.

  3. I have just finished On Tyranny by Timothy Snyder and he expressed similar sentiments. He urges readers to read books (gasp!) and print media. The internet is not reliable. Its information is too easily put out there without much research or thought. Thank you for also bringing this to our attention.


    • Yes; but I’d not want to be without the internet. As you say, much of the content is unreliable, but it is a good way of reaching and interacting with people who’d never come to our door.

  4. I agree with all the above statements. Whatever involves an increase in cognitive load diminishes cognitive energy for absorbing information. Noting the set, the commentator’s voice, reacting to clothing choices of the anchors, and a myriad of other visual inputs compete with recognition and recall. As you say, the Internet is a fantastic tool for many things, but the humble book and paper engage the brain in different ways and should not be eliminated.

  5. Absolutely! It’s difficult now to have a written discussion of anything because so often the one at the other end skips over what is perhaps very carefully thought out, missing nuances and shades of meaning. This then causes all sorts of misunderstandings and more heat than light gets generated.
    But I did see or read somewhere that REAL books are enjoying a comeback, so maybe all is not lost!

  6. Recently, I had to pen a letter. The sheer magnitude of having to downsize from a computer – where the words are flying, if not off, at least on the page, was a proper eye-opener. Describing emotions, thoughts and actions in a whole heap of words is nothing to having only one or two precise words available.
    An education in itself, but it certainly got me thinking.

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