January 5, 2017

For the past 24 hours, Chicago media have been cautiously running gruesome video of four people tying up, cutting, beating and taunting a mentally disabled man while broadcasting the ordeal live on Facebook.

The video is hard to watch. One of the captors slapped the victim repeatedly and used a knife to cut the victim’s clothing then cut a plug of his hair and scalp. While the victim’s head trickled blood, one of the captors flicked cigar ashes into the wound.

One of the captors yelled “Fuck Trump” and “Fuck White people” while the others laughed, ate snacks, sipped soda and interacted with Facebook viewers watching the violence. The victim is White and the four suspects are Black.

For news directors in Chicago, the video posed several questions. First, how much of it should they show to the public, if they decided to show it at all? To what extent should the identities of the assailants or the victim be obscured? And in the early hours, how should they treat a video that was published publicly but hadn’t yet been verified by police?

For Frank Whittaker, Station Manager and Vice President of News for WMAQ, verifying the video was more important than being the first to air it.

“I told my newsroom ‘I don’t necessarily need to be first on this story,”‘ Whittaker said.

At first, Whittaker worried that the video might not be authentic. It took nearly two hours for police to verify its authenticity, and they deferred further explanation until an evening news conference. Their briefing came after local newscasts ended, so WMAQ decided to downplay the story in the early newscast with a short voiceover until police provided more details.

When they decided to air the recording, some Chicago stations were unsure what to show. Jennifer Graves, the vice president and news director for WLS-TV, Chicago’s ABC affiliate, said, “Even though we were looking at this video, for a couple of hours we didn’t know for sure if it happened in our city or if it was even real.”  We kept asking, “Was this a joke?”

When police confirmed the video was authentic, they did not provide details about the suspects, the motive or the victim. And, until Thursday, nobody was charged and still the stations stuck to internal guidelines not to name or show suspects until they have been charged even while the raw video showing the victim and the abusers flowed on social media.

Before they knew more about the video, local journalists took steps to mitigate the damage it might cause. Even though the Facebook Live video clearly showed the suspected assailants, WMAQ did not show the suspects’ faces until police filed charges, Whittaker said.  The same conversations were going on at stations throughout Chicago.

“We didn’t know if these people were juveniles,” Graves said. “We just didn’t know enough.”

Across town, news organizations also blurred out the victim’s face. Stations withheld the victim’s name even though police made it public, said Jeff Kiernan, the vice president and news director at WBBM-TV. His newsroom plans to scale back use of the video in the coming days unless it becomes increasingly germane to the coverage for some reason. Instead, they’ll use still images in follow-up stories; experience has taught him there will be many follow-ups in a case like this one.

Chicago media have heard from viewers after running video of other high-profile violent crimes, Graves said. Often, they reach a point where they’ve seen enough, she said.

“We don’t want to just use disturbing video as wallpaper,” Graves said. “It has to have context if you are going to use it. We had the conversation in our newsroom today about how we won’t use the most graphic video in teases and promos.”

Readers, listeners and viewers might be surprised that these cautionary conversations are happening in the middle of a breaking story. And I suspect a fair number of viewers would urge journalists not to show any of the video at all.

It’s all the more reason to explain the decision-making process to the public. In my view, journalists have an obligation to show the video — or in the case of print and online media and radio, make it available online — in the initial reporting of the story because of its newsworthiness. There are some caveats, however:

-Consider the tone of the coverage. When you have repulsive video, there’s no need to pile on hype. Cut back on the adjectives and be factual when describing the clip.

-When journalists run the video days later, they should consider whether they have a justification every time. The reasons to use the video become less compelling as time passes; journalists can assume most people have seen or chosen not to see the images or hear the audio.

“If you use the disturbing images, explain the context, write to them, explain them,” Graves said.

-Any time you use disturbing images, prepare your audience for what’s coming next. I am not a fan of generic warnings like, “Some of these images may be disturbing.” Tell viewers what they are going to see and why.

Here’s what I would tell viewers: “The video that we have decided to air shows a victim being tied up, slapped, cut and threatened. We know lots of you don’t want to see this. No reasonable person does. But you should. It happened in our community, and we need to address it. You may choose to send your kids out of the room if they are near the TV now. But if you have young adults nearby, you may choose to watch it with them, then have a real discussion about what happened and how you feel about it. Your kids are going to hear about this video on their own — it is all over social media — which is another reason you may need to see it too.”

I understand that is an eight-sentence disclaimer where most stations would use only one. But clarity and building trust with viewers is more important than brevity in times like this. Most stations have hours of news every day. Don’t be in such a hurry all the time.

-If you consider this video to be news, as I do, explain to the public why you think so. I would argue that this kind of violence happens out of sight most often, which allows the rest of us to live comfortably not knowing the depths that humanity can sink to.

This confronts us with a hard reality that we all have to deal with. This video will be the focus of conversations, court proceedings and news coverage for months to come.

-The vulgar soundbites present special decision-making challenges. On TV, for reasons of FCC regulation, I would bleep or mask the F-word. The FCC does not generally penalize broadcasters who air profanity in the course of a legitimate news story, but the primary reason for airing vulgar language should be to provide clarity about whether somebody said something inflammatory.

There is no such debate here. My instinct is to include it online even if journalists edit it out for TV and radio. I do not usually lean toward including profanity in news coverage. But in this case, these words will become evidence of a hate crime charge.

I caution Chicago journalists not to turn this incident into a political debate unless there is some evidence that the suspects had a political motivation. Police have no firm evidence that race or politics were the central reasons the assailants chose this victim, WMAQ reported.

Chicago media have become sadly proficient in using violent video thoughtfully as a result of the Laquan McDonald shooting, where a dash-cam captured a Chicago police officer shooting 16 rounds at the 17-year-old. The video was initially everywhere, but as time passed, stations scaled back its use.

For all the criticism journalists get for exploiting and sensationalizing awful events, journalists in Chicago are putting a lot of thought into delivering this graphic news responsibly.

“We have to cover this story, but we don’t have to needlessly fan the flames,” Whittaker said.

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Al Tompkins is one of America's most requested broadcast journalism and multimedia teachers and coaches. After nearly 30 years working as a reporter, photojournalist, producer,…
Al Tompkins

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