Telling presences: Witnessing, mass media, and the imagined lives of strangers

Paul Frosh*

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalReview articlepeer-review

62 Scopus citations


In most traditional accounts, to be a witness is to be physically present at an event and report it to those who are absent. The ontological principle that authorizes testimony is the individual's corporeal presence at the event, a presence often vouchsafed by the suffering of the witnessing body. The logical extension of this is that media audiences are not the witnesses of the events they see, but the recipients of someone else's testimony. I take issue with such an account, claiming that contemporary witnessing has become a general mode of receptivity to electronic media reports about distant others. Replacing the ontological primacy of the witness with the interpretive encounter with "witnessing texts," I focus on these texts' world-making properties and the imaginative demands they make of their addressees. Mass media witnessing situates this imaginative engagement with others within an impersonal framework of "indifferent" social relations, creating a ground of civil equivalence between strangers that is morally enabling.

Original languageAmerican English
Pages (from-to)265-284
Number of pages20
JournalCritical Studies in Media Communication
Issue number4
StatePublished - 1 Oct 2006


  • Audience Reception
  • Civil Inattention
  • Imagination
  • Morality
  • Testimony


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