It was an all-too-familiar scene. A car parked at a gas station in Beaverton, Oregon this weekend had caught fire, and a group of people gathered around it, not to help the poor woman trapped inside the vehicle, but to shoot video of the unfolding tragedy.
Luckily for the woman, Phillipe Bittar saw the absurdity of the situation. "There was like six bystanders just videotaping like 'oh man she needs to get some help,'" he later told local FOX affiliate KPTV. "I told her hey I'm going to pull you out, get away from the window because I have to break it."
He ended up saving the woman's life, and now local media is calling him a hero. Bittar says he "just did what any person's supposed to do."
A similar scene unfolded last week in Lorain, Ohio, with a different outcome. There, a 17-year old lost control of his vehicle and crashed into a home, another SUV, and a tree. Police say that when Paul Pelton arrived on the scene, though, he made no attempt at saving the driver and his passenger's life.
Rather, he filmed the ugly scene on his cell phone, and allegedly later tried to sell the footage to "at least two news organizations." From a police statement after Pelton was arrested on the charge of Vehicle Trespass:
While others were rendering aid to these boys, a male took the opportunity to video this horrible scene with his cell phone. In the video, the male makes comments that the boys were “Idiots,” and holds his cell phone so that he can film these two boys who were in medical crisis. The male then opens the back door of this vehicle and leans in to continue capturing video. He walks around to the driver’s side and video tapes the driver, and then returns to the door that he opened and continues to capture video of these boys and the interior of the vehicle. At no time does the male render assistance to the victims, or even attempt to comfort them.
The passenger died in a hospital shortly after.
Pelton posted the video to Facebook, which alerted police to the video's existence, leading to his arrest. "To take that video and put it on Facebook, it just shows you have no principles. It's disgusting. That guy's mom probably had to see that. It made us relive it," neighbor Denise White told a local FOX station.
He has since issued an apology, saying he only shot and posted the video "so other kids could see it and learn from the mistake of speeding and driving recklessly."
In the digital age, the line between journalism and citizen-journalism is blurred, and the ethics of bearing witness have become equally murky. "The definition of a journalist – at least it was until recently – was somebody who stayed out of the fray, under the theory that the act of bearing witness is its own moral act," noted NPR host Michel Martin in a 2011 essay entitled "The Moral Dilemma in Witnessing Acts of Violence."
But what to do when practically everyone is a media maker, and everyone is bearing witness in hopes of posting a video to their Facebook and Instagram accounts and scoring some likes and comments?
Last March, a particularly brutal beating of a teenage girl in a Brooklyn McDonald's was captured by dozens of cell phones. Four teenagers ganged up on the 15-year old victim, who was repeatedly kicked in the head as she lay on the floor, seemingly unconscious. Miraculously, not one of the dozens of onlookers made a move to stop the violence. Some were even seen climbing on tables to get a better view of the beating.
"Yo, she’s dead. It’s a murder!” an onlooker even joked towards the end of the melee.
There is, however, some hope for humanity. Last May, Miami Herald photographer Al Diaz was stuck in traffic on a Florida highway when a woman jumped out of a car in front of him, in a panic because her five month old nephew had stopped breathing.
Diaz jumped out of his car and ran through traffic, looking for help, which he found when he came across several police officers who were also stuck in traffic. The officers ran to the scene, where they helped revive the infant, who survived the ordeal.
It was only after seeking the help that Diaz grabbed his camera and started taking the dramatic photos, which earned him the National Press Photographers Association Humanitarian Award.
"In this kind of situation you have to be a humanitarian first," he told NBC at the time. "And then you go to journalism."
Daniel Rivero is a producer/reporter for Fusion who focuses on police and justice issues. He also skateboards, does a bunch of arts related things on his off time, and likes Cuban coffee.