January 26, 2023

The body camera video of five Memphis police officers using excessive force to arrest Tyre Nichols will be released Friday afternoon, the Tennessee Sheriffs’ Association said.

The arrest occurred Jan. 7. Police said they pulled Nichols over on suspicion of reckless driving. Nichols died three days later. Attorneys for Nichols’ family say he died from “extensive bleeding caused by a severe beating.” Attorney Ben Crump said the police beating lasted more than three minutes, and that the video shows Nichols was tased, pepper-sprayed and restrained.

“He was defenseless the entire time. He was a human piñata for those police officers. It was an unadulterated, unabashed, nonstop beating of this young boy for three minutes,” said attorney Antonio Romanucci.

Memphis Police Chief Cerelyn Davis made no excuses for the officers’ actions. “This is not just a professional failing,” she said. “This is a failing of basic humanity toward another individual. … This incident was heinous, reckless and inhumane. And in the vein of transparency, when the video is released in the coming days, you will see this for yourselves.”

News organizations will decide what to show and, just as importantly, should explain why they chose to show or withhold the video, which certainly will be graphic and sicken every thoughtful and compassionate person. Both publishing and not publishing the video carry consequences.

MORE FROM POYNTER: Essential self-care for journalists covering the death of Tyre Nichols

In cases like this — and we have had too much practice at making these decisions — I use a set of questions that my Poynter colleagues and I have developed over the years to guide our decision-making. One question I ask in cases like this is: If the main function of journalism is to “seek truth and report it as fully as possible,” then how would you explain why you withheld the video?

When the video is released, new organizations have a responsibility to know what is in the video before showing it. In some instances, police have released video in news conferences that news organizations broadcast and streamed live without knowing what they were about to show.

  • What is the journalistic purpose behind broadcasting the graphic content? Does the display of such material clarify the story or improve audience understanding? Is there an issue of great public importance involved, such as public policy, community benefit or social significance? In the case of Nichols, clearly it is an issue of overwhelming public interest.
  • Is the use of graphic material the only way to tell the story? What are the alternatives? Do the less graphic alternatives dilute the clarity and truth-telling? This is a more difficult question in the case of Nichols because there seems to be no real debate about whether the use of force was excessive or justified. If the police department had initially justified the use of force, as happened in the George Floyd case, then the public airing of gruesome video becomes more vitally important.
  • Sometimes showing graphic images and airing disturbing audio is because it would be unfair to the victim and victim’s family not to air it since it tells the public about police misconduct. On the other hand, sometimes the graphic images tell a story that police say the public should know out of fairness to police. Withholding the video can be unfair to either or both sides.
  • When you mention race, ethnicity, gender, age details of those involved in an incident, how can you make it clear why those identifying details are important? Nichols is a Black man, and all of the officers are Black. That is likely to change the public narrative in this case from the more common narrative of white officers abusing Black victims to police officers abusing their authority. As one critic said, this case may change the conversation from “white versus Black” to “blue versus Black.”
  • If asked to defend the decision to your audience or the stakeholders in the story, such as a family member, how would you justify your decision? How will you explain your rationale to the public? This video goes well beyond shock value. The public has a need to know that police are acting within the law and this video draws that truth into question. Journalists should be in the truth-telling business. Sometimes the truth is hard to watch. But the public deserves to be able to trust that when police make mistakes, journalists will hold them accountable, just as when the police shoot a suspect out of legitimate fear for their safety, journalists will report that fairly and aggressively, too.
  • When is the story important enough to justify replaying graphic material? How will the material be used later? Will there be a time limit, after which the material is no longer aired? In the case of Floyd’s murder, thoughtful news organizations refrained from using the video or even still images of Floyd dying after using them initially. But when the case came to trial, news organizations once again had a justifiable reason to show the images, because the video was key to the prosecution and defense.
  • Do you have guidelines or discussions about how to use graphic material in promos, teases and social posts? How prominently will the most graphic images be portrayed online and in print? Thoughtful websites put graphic video behind a warning that requires an extra click to access the most graphic images. As I have written and said way too many times — because there have been way too many reasons to say it — “tone and degree” are two important words my mentor and friend Bob Steele used when he taught ethics with us at Poynter. Bob would often ask journalists about the tone of their coverage and the degree of how they would use the graphic video. Would they use it over and over, in slow motion, in promotions, teases or as file video days later?
  • Limit subjective adjectives. A wise boss of mine taught me that when news gets serious, we watch our tone. By that, she was saying limit subjective adjectives like terrifying, chilling, tragic, shocking and other needless descriptions. The content of the story will be enough without pumping up the public’s emotions. Be factual, be truthful, not sensational or exploitative.
  • When is a notice to the audience warranted, warning them that they are about to see or hear graphic content? How much detail should the warning provide? It might be useful to explain these guidelines even before you see the video in question. Let the audience in on your decision-making process.
  • Under what circumstances does your news organization show bodies of crime victims? How much graphic detail is necessary to convey the news aspect of the story? When do you cross the line into appealing to viewers’ desire for lurid detail?
  • Do the images you are using add to an unjustifiable perception that an area is violent or unsafe? Is that message accurate and contextual?
  • Who in your newsroom is making the decisions about what images to publish? Before making a decision, discuss the pros and cons with a diverse group in your organization. Would you be willing to include non-journalists in that discussion, since they are more likely to be representative of your audience? Should you also call others who may be able to give you an outsider’s point of view?
  • When covering live events that could turn graphic quickly, have you taken sufficient precautions to prevent unjustifiably violent pictures and sound from airing? Is there someone else available to collaborate on the decision of when and how to air images? What precautions will you use when going live to be sure you won’t inadvertently air video that does not meet your standards for airing graphic images?
  • How will the video affect other stakeholders beyond this incident? Police everywhere feel the public blowback when police anywhere act unprofessionally. How can you hold those who act recklessly accountable without indicting all officers everywhere?

There will be protests, likely long beyond Memphis. The sheriffs’ association warns they may be violent. Now is a useful time to talk with police and leaders of likely protest groups about coverage guidelines.

What identification would be helpful for journalists to display? What thresholds will cities use to declare emergencies, call in riot squads, use crowd control tactics like pepper spray, impose curfews and make arrests?

In 2021, I published a guideline for journalists covering unrest. Download it here.

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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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