April 20 is the 20th anniversary of the shooting at Columbine High School in Colorado that killed 12 students, one teacher and left 24 more injured.
As we approach that date, a group of Columbine students, along with others from Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Florida, and a number of student-led organizations around the country are pushing for journalists to publish images of students killed in gun violence.
MyLastShot.org organizer Kaylee Tyner, a Columbine High School student, was not born when the shooting occurred. But she says that if students placed a small sticker on their IDs stating, “In the event that I die from gun violence, please publicize the photo of my death,” it would force the public to pay attention to the lives lost.
Tyner said the public has been too protected from real images of death under the guise of “allowing victims to rest in peace without using their deaths as a political motive.”
“This sticker says ‘Hey, I want to be politicized.’ It gives individuals power that they didn’t have before, that in the event they die from gun violence, they can let others know their wishes to have their graphic imagery made public,” Tyner told me in an email. “This is the individual’s choice.”
Tyner said she was inspired by the graphic images of death involving Emmett Till, which became a catalyst for the civil rights movement. The graphic image of Kim Phuc, hit by napalm, showed the horrors of the Vietnam War. Other images from Syria and Somalia have shown children as victims.
Tyner argues that the images of children in the crosshairs of violence could stir the public to action when readers and viewers become numb to graphic images involving adults.
“No other generation has had to think about where they’d hide at a high school dance, or when they last texted their mom when the fire alarm goes off,” she said. “For us, this is about empowerment. Sure, we’re all taking a pledge that lets others know our wishes to have our photos publicized, but the message is bigger even than the outcome. It’s saying that kids across the nation, young enough to not be alive during the first high school shooting in U.S. history think the only way to end gun violence is to release the photos of our bodies.”
I turned to my friend Eric Garner for some advice for this story. He teaches broadcasting and journalism at Stoneman Douglas and was locked in his classroom with his students when the shooting unfolded Feb. 14, 2018.
As we talked about the #MyLastShot campaign he said, “You know that invulnerability that I had in high school and thought I could do anything in high school and go out and have some stupid moments — that innocence is gone.”
Garner said he just returned from a conference where student films were being judged.
“I am watching student films from across the country and every film the students did, it was another student dying,” he said. “The winning film ended up being about an active shooter drill. It has become pervasive in their society. It has become ingrained in these students that this could happen to them at any moment.”
MyLastShot.org states on its website that it doesn’t accept any form of income:
“Think of us less as an organization or brand and more as a resource — much like a Wikipedia page. Anyone is welcome to edit us or use us without ever asking us permission. If an individual or group wanted to use our materials/assets for their own group they could do so. Individuals and groups have access to our project working files (.PSD) and a downloadable sticker sheet they can print out for free. Additionally, individuals/groups can order stickers through Sticker Robot who is a third party vendor. We see no money from these transactions if people order stickers. Further, people can download our sticker working file and submit it to any sticker making company they’d like. Our materials are truly open-source.”
I have taught and written about the ethical use of graphic images and sound in journalism. I teach that the use of such images is situational and should not be covered by a blanket “never publish” or “always publish” policy that allows journalists to escape tough calls.
Even if students place a sticker on their IDs or driver’s licenses saying they want photos of their death made public, that is not the reason to publish. Take the student’s wishes into consideration, but don’t stop there.
There should be a journalistic purpose for the image to be published. If, for example, there is any question about what occurred — if the images prove an official version of the incident to be untrue, if the images illustrate a truth that the public would not have known from the descriptions of the scene — then the graphic images may be newsworthy and they could be ethically published.
For example, if a police body camera captures a shooting on video and the police say the suspect was attacking the officer, but the video shows the suspect was running away, it would be unfair to the victim/family not to show the video. If the suspect’s family claimed the office was in no danger but the video clearly showed the suspect charging with a knife, then it would be unfair to the officer to withhold the evidence.
You must justify the use of the image, video or audio every time you use it by following these steps:
- Explain your decision. When journalists break from a normal policy of not showing overtly graphic images, explain why. Be open to the public’s feedback and respond to what readers, viewers and listeners say.
- Think of the tone and degree of your coverage. How and where would the graphic images be used? How would a front-page image be different from an image on the inside of a paper? How would a color image be different than black and white? TV stations and networks should warn viewers before showing graphic images — and that means not using them in teases and show opens.
- Consider the stakeholders who would be affected by your decision. This is where the #MyLastShot campaign may cause the most pause. Tyner said, “It’s the victim saying he or she wants this in the event they die. Should the media, or advocates oblige, the burden of publishing these photos isn’t on their shoulders. It’s a decision that was made by the victim. Carrying it out is simply carrying out the last wishes of the victim.” In fact, the #MyLastShot website encourages students to appoint an advocate to be sure their wishes are honored in the event of their death.
- How will showing the images affect the victim’s family, friends, classmates and the viewing or reading public?
- Did the victim discuss his or her wishes with family members? The closest comparison may be in organ transplantation, where potential organ donors make their wishes known on their driver’s license but surviving family members can and do override those decisions sometimes. How would a journalist know the wishes of a family whose student signed a #MyLastShot sticker?
- How does the age of the student enter into the decision to publish or not publish a gruesome image? Would journalists place the same gravity on the signature of a 15-year-old that they would on an 18-year-old? How about a college student?
- What were the circumstances under which the student signed the sticker? Was it peer pressure or a heartfelt statement that was behind the signature? How do you know?
- Would the graphic images or videos reward violence? The mass killer in New Zealand recently sought maximum publicity for his violence. He streamed his massacre online even when he knew he might be killed during the live stream. Infamy is a reward for such people and publicizing images of their victims may be exactly what they hope for.
- Never use the image, video or audio merely for shock value or to create page traffic. If you publish or air shocking content, it should be part of a serious and thorough examination of an event or issue. That is the cost of entry for using that content. The shocking moment should be surrounded by context and explanatory journalism.
- Consider alternatives. Garner said he does not completely rule out using graphic images, but he is close to it. He said, “I honestly believe the more powerful picture that they posted on social media where they were laughing and smiling — the last image they posted the day before — that is relatable. They were at a birthday party, at somebody’s house, and understanding the 16-year-old is no longer with us, that is a powerful message, too.”
In our multiple email exchanges, Tyner offered this compelling thought:
“And you know the saddest part? The people who support this project most are the people who have lost the most. Parkland survivors, Columbine parents who lost their own children. When I told my parents, they were shocked. When I talked to parents who had lost their own children — they understood. Colorado State representative Tom Sullivan supported our project. Why? He lost his own son in the Aurora shooting. He keeps graphic images of his son’s dead body on his phone to show senators and legislators who he believes have grown numb to the issue of gun violence. Unfortunately, for those of us who have never been affected by gun violence, we see a drastic movement that has gone too far. For those who have lost loved ones, we haven’t gone far enough.”