What conveys the truth more effectively?
A snapshot of a person’s values and accomplishments in the form of a quotation? Or a long essay about that person that will contain the short clip but surround it with other facts that could contradict or water down the single line (or build on the quote and infuse it with needed context)?
It’s a good question because you can make a case that at times, either answer is preferable. It might be nice to have both. That’s why in our memos, we have bullet-point highlights on top and then all the facts (usually in chronological order) in the body of the document.
How best to convey the essence of something is the subject in part of a marvelous show at New York’s International Center for Photography: a fascinating pairing by Richard Choi of video and still photos plucked from the 30 seconds or so of the video. Billed as “a meditation on the stream of life and its expression as a single image, between film and photography, between life and our memory of it,” it prompted in me all kinds of thoughts about fact investigation.
To know fully what someone’s life consisted of you would have to be there for the whole time, and that’s not practical. In abstracting a life to get the essence of it, you need to make editorial decisions about what to include and what to omit. Sometimes the gaps are there in testimony and documentation, and sometimes you have so much information that you are obliged to leave some out.
One of the pairings in the exhibition that struck me was a short film of a mother and her young daughter and son kneeling in prayer in what looks like a church or chapel. The photo shows them immobile and deep in prayer. But the video reveals that the little boy couldn’t stop fidgeting for most of the time, and the photo captured him at a rare single moment of rest.
The difference between a snapshot in time and a flow of information comes up in many walks of life. In accounting a balance sheet is a snapshot of the last second of the period, but profit and loss and cash flow are financial “movies” of the company’s life over the course of a quarter or year. To process a movie or a photo you think differently, and that certainly goes for reading financial records. Companies can clean up a balance sheet for the end of the year or the quarter, and then go back into debt on January 2, for instance. A “movie” of a whole year can obscure a big change that happened in the business at one end of the period or another.
Another way the photo vs. movie issue comes up with investigators is when we do interviews. We have to boil down for the client the remarks most relevant to their inquiry. If possible it’s nice to provide clients with a transcript of a whole interview, but in many states lawyers and their agents are discouraged from recording telephone calls as a matter of ethics. In other states, it’s forbidden by law to record a phone call without telling the other person that a recording is under way. We wrote about this in Taping Phone Calls Is Not Worth the Risk.
But now, there exists the ability to transcribe automatically whole YouTube videos. I wrote about the revolution in investigation that this kind of computing power would bring in Legal Jobs In the Age of Artificial Intelligence. If you can easily provide the context for the quote you pull out of a one-hour interview or video, it’s always good to do so.
Soon we may be able to transcribe automatically all YouTube videos in existence and then search the texts for what we need. But you can’t hand your client 15,000 hours of transcripts of every former employee of Company X talking about what it’s like to work there.
You will need to play editor, even if it’s a matter of giving selected clips of video. In some cases, a single 10-second statement will do the trick, and here “photo” will triumph over “movie.”