Video and still photos of deadly police encounters in Louisiana and Minnesota are proving irresistible for the media — even if their real lessons are as debatable as their images are shocking.
Minnesota Gov. Mark Dayton on Thursday asked the Justice Department to investigate the shooting of Philando Castile, a Black man, by police during a seemingly routine traffic stop near St. Paul. It was captured in an unavoidably engrossing video shot by his fiancé, who was in the car with her 4-year-old daughter and recorded the scene while offering an unflustered, journalist-like account in real-time.
This deadly scene came after the fatal shooting of another Black man in Baton Rouge, Louisiana during an attempted arrest. In each case, print, digital and TV outlets went heavy with the images, with the New York Daily News running an unavoidably controversial, gripping photo of the dead Baton Rouge man, Alton Sterling, man on its front page Thursday.
The images of the Louisiana tragedy "were published by scores of outlets and had been on a video loop all day," said Jim Rich, the editor of The Daily News. "There was never any thought of not using them."
"The frame of Sterling lying on the ground with his hands completely empty is the starkest evidence against everything these two officers — and many cops like them before — claim in these situations. It’s a disgusting, disturbing and enraging image."
The Daily News, where I served as Washington bureau chief and columnist, has been consistent and aggressive in covering gun violence in recent years via Rich and his predecessor, Colin Myler. At times, its use of certain images has inspired criticism. But it's also been praised and at times exploited.
After the 2013 Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre, California Democratic U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein called for an assault weapons ban Wednesday as she surfaced on the Senate floor with a blow-up of a Daily News front page that featured photos of the Newtown victims and the headline, "SHAME ON U.S."
Whether at times too graphic for some, the paper's coverage is part and parcel with its unalloyed chagrin with gun violence and government inaction. It's been especially critical of the U.S. Congress and reluctance to pass gun control legislation.
"Everyone who sees it and the videos should be sickened and outraged that this is the accepted state of policing in this country," said Rich. "That cops continue to view all Black men and women inherently as threats to their safety, instead of assessing each situation and proceeding intelligently, is unacceptable."
"If there are men and women who serve in law enforcement who take offense to that, then they need to speak up and join the condemnation of this ongoing scourge," said Rich." It has to stop. And if that image on our cover today doesn’t make that clear, then I don’t know what will."
When it comes to video, journalist-media entrepreneur Steve Brill underscored what he feels has become so obvious that it doesn't need much reiteration.
"The ubiquity of cameras holds the police more accountable, but can also requires some skepticism before leaping to conclusions because the video might not be complete."
But one might still raise multiple questions, without knowing the totality of each incident.
For example, what explains such incidents not happening with apparent similar frequency in other developed nations with similar issue of race and law enforcement tensions with certain communities? Somewhere in the mix of an answer would seemingly have to be the quantity and access to firearms across the United States.
The stereotypes that have evolved in the U.S. over who might be armed and dangerous also seemingly play into such encounters. And while there is assuredly a need for better police training, including learning how to de-escalate potential conflicts with citizens, experts in training at times note how the training of officers overseas is not that different than what one finds in America.
And, yet, there are far fewer such incidents.
So what about all the video that gets played and replayed over and over by a video-loving media?
"Such video, whether captured by citizens or by police body cameras, offer us the potential to help us learn a whole lot [about the interactions of police and citizens]," said a prominent criminal justice researcher who asked not to be identified.
"But they can have perverse impacts since the videos that go viral are not about officers doing good things. They are the explosive ones of police-involved shootings."
In fact, such shootings have arguably been on a decline nationwide. But the average citizen surely doesn't realize that amid the media's dissemination of videos of incidents, such as those in Louisiana and Minnesota, that may be both horrific and yet perhaps outlier cases. Context is often lost.
Taken together, it can all further undermine the credibility and legitimacy of police and heighten tensions with the communities they serve, said the researcher.