Covering systemic violence without showing video of police killings

By now, most of us have likely seen the cellphone video of the murder of George Floyd by Minnesota Police officer Derek Chauvin multiple times. The video—captured by a Black teenager named Darnella Frazier while she was walking to the store with her young cousin—has featured prominently on TV news broadcasts, been embedded in online news coverage, and remains widely visible on social-media platforms like Twitter and Facebook. It often carries a warning about the content being graphic or disturbing, and it is both. A New York Times headline credited Frazier’s video with having “upended the police department’s initial tale,” and a legal analyst for ABC named it “the star witness for the prosecution”—a comment picked up by other news outlets. That the clip showed Floyd’s death in such painful and graphic detail surely helped counteract the defense’s argument that Chauvin used reasonable force against Floyd, or that Floyd’s death was an unfortunate accident, and undoubtedly played a major role in Chauvin’s recent conviction on charges of unintentional second-degree murder; third-degree murder; and second-degree manslaughter. 

The day after Chauvin’s conviction, an NPR story noted that Frazier and her video had been “praised for making [the] verdict possible.” Such praise was widespread; after the verdict, social media lit up with people thanking Frazier. “Can we all sing a praise song for Darnella Frazier who had the presence of mind to film that video that made such a difference in this case,” Michelle Norris, founding director of the Race Card Project, wrote. Margaret Sullivan, media columnist for the Washington Post, also paid tribute to Frazier for her quick thinking, and her desire to document the injustice in front of her. “After so many previous instances in which police officers were acquitted of what looked to many people like murder, this time was different,” Sullivan wrote. “And it was different, in some significant portion, because of a teenager’s sense of right and wrong.” The Mayor of St. Paul said that Frazier’s video deserved to win a Pulitzer Prize for journalism.

But the repeated broadcasting, posting, and sharing of eyewitness videos of police violence against Black people is problematic for a number of reasons—not least of which is the trauma it forces Black viewers to experience or re-live. Ahead of the verdict, Allissa Richardson—a journalism professor at USC Annenberg, and the author of Bearing Witness While Black: African Americans, Smartphones, and the New Protest #Journalism, wrote in an essay for Vox that re-playing these kinds of videos does more harm than good. “I now believe that circulating videos of Black and brown death at the hands of police reinforces white supremacy,” Richardson wrote, adding that they “are a reminder of a social hierarchy that privileges police with qualified immunity [and] punishes communities of color with death.” Numerous journalists shared Richardson’s essay following Chauvin’s conviction, and other writers echoed her sentiments. The Undefeated published an essay titled “It’s time to stop showing the video of Floyd’s death”; in it, Andrene Taylor wrote that “the constant showing of Floyd’s death is a racialized, modern-day snuff film that has its roots in lynching [and] requires making a spectacle of defiling, dehumanizing and degrading Black bodies.”

In her essay for Vox, Richardson detailed her experiences speaking with journalists about the Floyd video during last summer’s Black Lives Matter uprisings. “Journalists from around the world called and emailed me for advice about how to report on police brutality without showing these images,” she wrote. Ahead of the verdict, she realized,  “we should have been asking ourselves why we ever demanded that marginalized communities produce this kind of visual ‘proof’ in the first place… Why was it necessary to form a counternarrative to the old stereotype of Black and brown folks’ criminality? Why did we ever need to produce a parallel storyline to an official police report?” Alex Neason, CJR staff writer, made a similar point last year, about how journalists have covered the deaths of Ahmaud Arbery and Breonna Taylor, among too many others. “Black people have never needed video footage to be convinced of a problem,” she wrote. “And the same news organizations disseminating images of Black people being murdered have not, to large extent, committed to other coverage that’s in the service of saving Black lives.” 

Richardson argues in her Vox essay for a moratorium on broadcasting videos of Black deaths unless the victim’s family consents, and that legislators should use the Broadcast Decency Act of 2005—put in place after Justin Timberlake exposed Janet Jackson’s nipple during a 2004 Super Bowl half-time performance—to fine TV news outlets and social-media platforms that distribute such videos. “Removing the financial incentive for news media to air these ghastly videos may force journalists to engage in more reparative storytelling,” she wrote. “What kind of systemic cruelty led Chauvin to believe that George Floyd’s pleas for his life did not matter? These are the hard questions that policy, not more police footage, can answer. This is where journalism must go next.”

Here’s more on journalism and racist violence:

New rules: “Anyone who needs one more video to believe the brutality around us either refuses to learn or is content with the violence,” Melanye Price, an author and professor of political science at Prairie View A&M University in Texas, wrote in an essay for the New York Times last year. “The deceased in these videos are sons, daughters, mothers and uncles. They are each more than their deaths and should not be used as tools of instruction to teach lessons that are already familiar to us. There must be some new rules of engagement around these videos.”

Trauma: With the ubiquity of smartphones and dash and body cameras, there is ample footage to expose police violence and grab the nation’s attention,” Kia Gregory wrote in a piece for The New Republic in 2019. “Yet because the images of police violence are so pervasive, they inflict a unique harm on viewers, particularly African Americans, who see themselves and those they love in these fatal encounters. This recognition becomes a form of violence in and of itself—and even more so when justice is denied.”

Brutalized: Jenna Wortham wrote about “Racism’s Psychological Toll,” in an essay for the New York Times in 2015: “Our screens and feeds are filled with news and images of black Americans dying or being brutalized,” she wrote. “A brief and yet still-too-long list: Trayvon Martin, Tamir Rice, Walter Scott, Eric Garner, Renisha McBride. The image of a white police officer straddling a black teenager on a lawn in McKinney, Tex., had barely faded before we were forced to grapple with the racially motivated shooting in Charleston, SC. I’ve had numerous conversations with friends and colleagues who are stressed out by the recent string of events; our anxiety and fear is palpable.”

Balance: Camille Bromley writes for CJR about how coverage of the Chauvin trial from Unicorn Riot, a decentralized media collective, has been providing a more real-life view of what has been happening both inside and outside the courthouse, compared with mainstream media. While the latter used the usual standups and other traditional commentary to fill out their broadcasts, Unicorn Riot’s stream “was crowded, busy, and filled with noise from protest chants, speeches, and conversation in George Floyd Square, a memorial to Floyd at the site of his death.” This presentation was unusual because it “put protest on equal footing with the trial itself,” Bromley says.

Other notable stories:

The law enforcement arm of the US Postal Service has been running a program that tracks and collects posts on social media made by American users of those services, including content that relates to planned protests, according to a document obtained by Yahoo News. The document includes details of a surveillance effort known as the Internet Covert Operations Program, which Yahoo says involves “having analysts trawl through social media sites to look for what the document describes as inflammatory postings and then sharing that information across government agencies.”

Former New York Times opinion writer Charlie Warzel, who left recently to publish a newsletter called Galaxy Brain, writes about Facebook’s move into audio programming, and how Mark Zuckerberg’s claims about working for creators ring hollow. “Facebook can jump on the creator economy train and build some clone apps of other social platforms and siphon off some good money with zombie products. But this move doesn’t feel in service of pushing the creator economy forward. It feels like a land grab, not an attempt at innovation. You could argue this is overly cynical but, as Hot Pod’s Nick Quah wrote recently, ‘whether by malice or neglect, there’s very little historical reason to even remotely trust Facebook on anything related to creators and media businesses.’”

The Washington Post profiles Dan Bongino, a former Secret Service agent turned conservative podcast host who, according to the paper, “isn’t just taking over where Rush Limbaugh left off — he’s building a conservative media universe” that consists of a highly-trafficked website, a podcast, and a Facebook page that is routinely in the top 10 most-shared posts on the social network, as well as books and a YouTube channel. Bongino says he wants to create “a parallel digital economy in which the right wing builds its own digital infrastructure, separate from large tech companies he believes are anti-conservative, by acquiring its own ‘pipes’ that ferry information on the Internet.”

The Associated Press is doubling down on a local news experiment called StoryShare, expanding to 130 newsrooms across the country, according to a report from Sara Fischer of Axios. “What started out as a COVID emergency information share program has become a pretty massive local news collective,” she tweeted. The network is expanding from geographic networks to topical ones, according to AP, where newsrooms will be able to share stories, photos, and videos. The project is run by the newswire, but participating newsrooms get to choose how much they want to share.

A writer for Study Hall, a collective for independent journalists, wrote about the escalating feud between the Hatfields and McCoys of New York’s do-it-yourself media ecosystem: a satirical, print-only newspaper called Drunk Canal and an equally plucky competing broadsheet called Sober Canal, both of which are focused on the activities and cultural milieu of New York City’s Dimes Square. “The Drunken Canal women are whip-smart and garrulous,” writes Eliza Wallace, “but mostly just purely enthusiastic — ‘all feeling, not facts,‘ as they write in one editor’s letter.” Sober Canal, meanwhile, takes issue with a number of things, including its rival’s exposure in a New York Times article, as well as the paper’s “focus on white-owned gentrifying establishments.”

Abby Rabinowitz writes for CJR about how climate journalism has “entered the solutions era.” A number of new outlets are focusing on this aspect of climate change, including the podcast Mothers of Invention, as well as Gimlet Media’s How to Save a Planet, Grist’s Temperature Check, and A Matter of Degrees. The latter’s goal, according to its creators, is to help listeners “see the levers of power behind climate change — and how to empower yourself.” Legacy print outlets also have some new offerings as well, says Rabinowitz, including the Washington Post’s “Climate Solutions” section, the New York Times’ Climate Solutions: A Special Report, and Bloomberg Green.

Emma Tucker, the editor of the Sunday Times in the UK, has apologized after the paper ran a front-page story about Prince Philip’s funeral that claimed the public “secretly enjoyed” his repeated gaffes, which in many cases involved comments that were racially insensitive, according to a report by Press Gazette. Christina Lamb, the paper’s chief foreign correspondent, wrote from Windsor that the Duke of Edinburgh was an “often crochety figure, offending people with gaffes about slitty eyes, even if secretly we rather enjoyed them.” This specific line only appeared in the print edition of the paper. according to the Press Gazette report — a modified version appeared on the website.

Journalist Matthew Keys violated the terms of his release from prison when he deleted the YouTube channel belonging to Comstock magazine, shortly after he resigned from the business publication, according to a ruling from a federal judge reported by the Sacramento Bee. Judge Kimberly Mueller said the evidence showed that Keys was responsible for deleting the channel. Keys went to prison in 2015 after being convicted of several counts of computer and network tampering for giving the login information for the Los Angeles Times website to a hacker group called Anonymous. He was sentenced to two years in federal prison and two years of supervised release.

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