Dangerous Media in The Killing of a Journalist

The efficacy and potency of journalism is in question. Thomas Keenan points to the Bosnian war as epitomic of the contrary influence of media footage and reporting, which can act to desensitise and pacify those viewers it otherwise seeks to inspire.

This “lack of action proceeds… from the fact that the mediated images of the world are mere representations that lend an air of unreality to the things they represent. […] media watchers lose touch with reality… stand passively by or engage in self-serving forms of ineffective action.” [1]  In The Killing of a Journalist, Matt Sarnecki uses a compilation of mediated images from multiple modes: CCTV footage, news reports, home movies, photos, and articles, interspersed by interviews with expert witnesses, to document the investigation into the murder of journalist, Ján Kuciak, and his fiancée, Martina Kušnírová. This mixture of observational and participatory modes is reflective of the formal qualities of investigatory journalism and implies an objective presentation of events however, the manner in which the media panoply is framed acts to disturb the spectator’s conditioned expectations of media consumption, signposting the active and potent quality of images as dangerous objects. This re-sensitises the observer so that looking is from an active posture and removes the implied distance between observer and observed content.

This framing technique is in evidence in the opening scene of the film. The first shot depicts Ján and Martina engaged in the mundane act of returning a shopping trolley to its station after visiting the supermarket. It is a common trope within documentary filmmaking to film subjects performing routine activities as a means of introduction, so at first glance the viewer may reasonably presume that they’re watching footage shot by Sarnecki or his colleagues. However, a voiceover identifies this as “surveillance video”, qualifying the bland imagery with hostile undertones. The shot then cuts to a laptop on which the same footage can be seen playing, whilst the speaker, Pavla Holcová, watches, stating that “a few months after this surveillance was done, Ján and Martina were murdered.” The act of reframing the video transposes it from image, on [the viewer’s] screen, to object (the laptop), at the same moment that it is also recontextualised in the light of Pavla’s commentary. The mediated image is thereby transmogrified into a lethal object, as culpable and dangerous as any other weapon. This creates an uneasy dynamic between the body of the viewer and the body of the film; the viewers’ senses become heightened towards the image due to its hostile properties. This ‘objectification’ of media imagery occurs multiple times throughout the documentary: video footage is frozen into newspaper headlines; and depositions of the perpetrators similarly transferred to the laptop for dissection by expert lawyers, alienating the spectator from passive consumption of what they are watching.

The decontextualization of mediated images is also used to exacerbate this distance. At the close of the introductory sequence, and after the title card, “The Killing of a Journalist,” is displayed, a segment of CCTV footage is shown. The video appears fleetingly and without explanation. It depicts the hitmen who were hired to kill Ján on route to the murder and is a vital piece of evidence which aided their conviction. At this early position in the film the footage is inexplicable however it forms a subliminal connection with the opening shot as another example of surveillance, reminding the spectator that they too are being watched. The use of CCTV footage acts to align the viewer with Ján and Martina as similarly observable and observed subjects and thus foregrounds the vulnerability of the spectator, who might be similarly victimised. This vulnerability is enforced by the film’s subject matter, which exposes both mafia and state involvement in the murder. “The critique of institutions not doing what they are supposed to… addresses an awareness of vulnerability—not only to the potential exposure of crime—of large groups, a sense of insecurity, where the… state is no longer to be trusted” [2].  Thus, the film’s thesis statement, “an attack on a journalist is an attack on all of us,” is given new weight.

The powerful qualities of journalistic media specifically are more particularly stressed throughout the film, as the purpose of the documentary is not only to highlight the danger of mediated images in the hands of a corrupted state, but the potency of journalistic media to challenge such institutions. A sequence of different press conferences between the Prime Minister of Slovakia and the Minister for the opposition are edited together as statement and rebuttal; argument and counter-argument, in quick succession, leading to mass public protests and culminating in the Prime Minister’s final resignation. The speed of the interchange and the manner of editing demonstrates the force of these media objects as they bounce against one another prompting the downfall of the Prime Minister, and further illustrating that “…the television image constitutes a field of action – not just a representation of actions elsewhere, but a field in or on which actions occur – a public field.” [3]

In conclusion, The Killing of The Journalist uses editing and framing devices to reorient the viewer in relation to the mediated images displayed, to view such with an awareness of their potency, both in perpetuating and destabilising authoritarian and corrupt regimes. So doing, the film itself becomes a powerful object, capable of influencing and affecting both the spectator and the world, a point which is alluded to in the film’s conclusory statements in which it is hinted that the now exposed, corrupt party may once again rise to power, an eventuality which The Killing of a Journalist aims to prevent. The importance of investigatory journalism is something that Sarnecki elaborates in comparing events in Slovakia with the current situation globally: “do we want to end up like Russia where there is no more independent media; people can't even write the word ‘war’?... then you end up with a country where 70% of the population (at least by polls) is supporting this war because there is no opposition. I mean it's being used as a tool by authoritarian regimes. It is a threat to authoritarian regimes, so I mean that's why it's so important to democracy, freedom of the press.” [4]


Sophie Burnham
ELTE BTK Film Studies MA

[1] Keenan, Thomas: Publicity and Indifference: Media, Surveillance and 'Humanitarian Intervention'. In: Joram Ten Brink – Joshua Oppenheimer (eds.): Killer Images: Documentary Film, Memory, and the Performance of Violence. London: Wallflower Press, 2012. pp. 15–40. Baudrillard qtd. in Keenan pp. 32–33.

[2] Mats Hyvönen – Maria Karlsson – Madeleine Eriksson: The Politics of True Crime: Vulnerability and Documentaries on Murder in Swedish Public Service Radio’s P3 Documentary. pp. 291–313. p. 309.

[3] Keenan, p. 25.

[4] Sarnecki, Matt. Director of The Killing of a Journalist Ana Stanic. 2022. Interview. https://cineuropa.org/en/video/427575/