May 19, 2021

Cable news stations were cautious when covering a live news conference held by Andrew Womble, the district attorney of Pasquotank County, North Carolina, in which Womble released video that showed police fatally shooting Andrew Brown Jr.

When Womble showed the graphic police body camera video, which Brown’s family has been asking for, CNN cut away from the news conference, said they had not seen the video and that would not air it until it had time to assess the graphic content.

CNN later aired the video and posted it online. CNN “Inside Politics” host John King cautioned that they do not know the full context. He forewarned viewers that they would show the clip, explained that police were not going to release the video beyond playing it at the news conference and then played it.

MSNBC stayed on the live news conference but, at the moment of the shooting, inserted a still photo of Brown while keeping the audio rolling.

Both decisions were thoughtful ones.

Without a doubt, this video is newsworthy in that it provides the clearest evidence of what occurred.  Brown’s family has been asking for it to provide the shooting was, in their view, unjustified. At the same time, police and prosecutors would argue that the video showed that Brown resisted arrest and “posed an immediate threat to the safety” of the officers.

A handful of journalists around the country tell me that their stations have made similar decisions. Recently, for example, a local station in Knoxville, Tennessee, did something similar to MSNBC when police released body camera video there.

Both CNN and MSNBC’s decisions not to air the video live do not prevent them from making other decisions in the future, during which time they can surround the graphic video with warnings, context and a reason why showing the video — and not just describing what it shows — is necessary.

This article originally appeared in Covering COVID-19, a daily Poynter briefing of story ideas about the coronavirus and other timely topics for journalists. Sign up here to have it delivered to your inbox every weekday morning.

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