After police shot and killed teenager Michael Brown in the St. Louis suburb of Ferguson, a hashtag started on Twitter to push back at the narrative many mainstream media organizations often fall into.
“You’d be hard-pressed to find mainstream media showing Brown at his high school graduation or with members of his family,” Yesha Callahan wrote for The Root on Monday. “Ironically, all of those photos exist courtesy of Brown’s Facebook page.” Callahan continued:
As tensions remain high, not only in the town of Ferguson but also on social media, Twitter users created #IfTheyGunnedMeDown to make a statement on how the media draws a biased narrative when it comes to telling the stories of black men and women.
— Kouri C. Marshall (@KouriCMarshall) August 12, 2014
— YoungGifted&Black✊ (@CJ_musick_lawya) August 10, 2014
Hashtag activism can just be an excuse for not actually doing something, James Poniewozik wrote for Time on Monday.
But #IfTheyGunnedMeDown was a simple, ingenious DIY form of media criticism: direct, powerful, and meaningful on many levels. It made the blunt point that every time a media outlet chooses a picture of someone like Brown, it makes a statement. It created identification: so many ordinary people–students, servicemen and women, community volunteers–could be made to look like a public menace with one photo dropped in a particular context. And it made a particular racial point: that it’s so much easier, given our culture’s racial baggage, for a teenager of color to be made to look like a “thug” than white teen showing off for a camera the exact same way.
Poynter’s faculty shared their thoughts on the hashtag and offered some guidance for journalists.
This is an unfortunate, yet real reaction on the part of young black and brown men in America today. It is indeed a throw back to the Trayvon Martin tragedy. And here is what media can learn from the conversation.
- One image does not encapsulate the life of an individual.
- Complete captions are essential for accurate context.
- Be aware of the potential to stereotype and misrepresent through visual presentation.
- Understand that a bereaved family is not guided by journalistic standard of timeliness.
- Update the photographic coverage as the story develops.
This a natural-born news literacy moment. News consumers see the patterns around choices that professional journalists and other storytellers make with a familiar story. And consumers recognize the limitations of those choices. Underneath the #IfTheyGunnedMeDown commentary is a request that we be more nuanced and flexible in our story-telling. Most people aren’t entirely bad or entirely good. We don’t need victims of violence to fall into those categories in order for a story to resonate. And we certainly don’t need police officers to fall into those categories. Because good and bad are false categories when it comes to human beings. Instead we need stories that capture full characters. And most importantly we need stories that document facts, promote understanding and hold the powerful accountable.
No single image can define an individual. It is possible for an image to be accurate, real and unaltered and still not be a true depiction of who that person is. A booking photo could be a single image of a person are the worst moment of his or her life. A wedding photo could be that same person at the best moment of his/her life. Both are extremes. Seek context.
- The captions we use with any image can be crucial. Explain who supplied the image, when and where was it captured? What were the circumstances?
- Remember that the repeated use of images as file video on television for example, can shape the way the public sees that person.
- Be particularly thoughtful about backgrounds and settings. How does the image change if you crop out a background or include it? Are there logos, commercial products, signs or locations that may be included in the image that could unintentionally harm that product or business or send an unintended signal about the individual in the photo?
- Toning an image, including dodging and burning should render the image in a way that reflects what the photographer captured through the viewfinder. Dark toning may make a person appear more suspicious or less trustworthy.
- What role does the clothing that the individual is wearing play in how that person may be perceived?
- What motives might a source have to supply you a particular image of a person, be it police, friends of the victim, enemies of the victim?
- Which images get the most prominence in your coverage? Why?
The #iftheygunnedmedown hashtag forces us all to consider “if I was newsworthy for whatever reason today, what is the single worst or most damning photo ever taken of me? What would it say about me? How could it be taken out of context?”
The inclination of news organizations to use photos to illustrate stories, instead of to tell stories, is catching up with them. Telling the story of a young man’s life in a single photograph is unfortunately common; the same organizations would be far less likely to publish a story with such one-dimensional reporting.
#IfTheyGunnedMeDown asks the logical question of media that oversimplifies, even issues of life and death. As long as photos and other visuals are viewed as decorations instead of important — and often more powerful — means of storytelling, newsrooms will fail to ask rigorous questions of them, like:
- Having seen this photo, what do we know and what do we realize we don’t know?
- Does this photo, standing alone, tell a true story of this person’s life?
- What further (visual) reporting needs to be done before we can publish this photograph?
- Are we capable of putting this photo in the proper context, either with a caption, or additional photographs?
What does the “Real Me” look like in a photo?
It’s a question we ask participants in our news management seminars to consider— and actually share with the group in picture form. Remember, these are journalists. What do they choose? Photos with beloved family members, or of vacations at special places, cuddling with pets or crossing finish lines at half-marathons. Meaningful moments they feel define them as people.
They chose them.
The #iftheygunnedmedown messages are a loud and clear message to media leaders who routinely find and publish photos of people they’ve never met, often victims, usually powerless: You are choosing the iconic image that represents my life.
How do you know it’s “The Real Me”?