A news station aired a photo of a stabbing victim holding what looks like a gun. Here's why that's problematic

It is a rare newsroom that hasn't had to learn some version of the awful lesson that KTVU-TV is digesting today about the hazards of grabbing photos from Facebook.

NABJ, The Maynard Institute (which is based in Oakland) and BABJA called out the TV station for using a Facebook photo of 18-year-old Nia Wilson holding what appeared to be a gun. Wilson and her sister, Lahtifa, were attacked aboard a Bay Area Rapid Transit train by a man who slashed them with a knife. BART Police Chief Carlos Rojas underscored the callousness of the murder, saying it was “prison-style attack” and that in 30 years as an officer, this is among “the most vicious” he had seen. The San Francisco Chronicle reported it was the third homicide on the BART line in five days.

The horrific nature of the attack and the innocence of the victims added gravity to anger over KTVU's decision Monday to use a photo from Wilson's Facebook page showing her holding what appeared to be a gun near her head. The image appears not to be of a gun at all, but instead of a cell phone case that is made to look like a gun. But that's not the point of the outrage. (Poynter is not using the image in this story so as not to perpetuate it, but we are linking to the image so journalists can see what the controversy is about.)

Even if the "gun" in the photo had been real, Wilson was a victim, not a criminal. She died calling out her sister's name.

NABJ, Maynard and BABJA's protest letter to KTVU said:

"The use of the photo can be seen as an attempt to dismiss her humanity and silence those who view her death as a racially-motivated attack."

NABJ president Sarah Glover told Poynter, "Nia Wilson is a victim of an unspeakable and senseless crime, and her fatal stabbing has elevated circumstances as it was allegedly racially motivated. There’s no justification for KTVU's airing of a photo of her apparently holding a fake gun cell phone case. KTVU victimized her twice by airing an image that puts her in a negative light, and that also has nothing to do with her death. The lack of sensitivity shown to the victim and her family is unacceptable." 

KTVU offers "no excuses"

KTVU aired the image once on the Monday noon newscast. KTVU anchor Frank Somerville, who has worked at the station for 30 years, apologized on the 10 o'clock newscast. He also used his Facebook page and wrote an apology that may be the most straightforward, no excuses apology I have seen from any media figure:

I wanted to take a moment and apologize for a picture that KTVU showed on the air for several seconds today about the young woman who was killed on a BART train last night.

Here name was Nia Wilson. She was 18 years old.

On our noon newscast we briefly showed a picture taken from social media of her holding what appears to be a gun next to her head.

I had nothing to do with the picture being used. I wasn’t even at work.
But as a leader in the newsroom I felt it was my job to speak up and apologize.

There is no excuse for we did.
Repeat: No excuse!

We NEVER should have used that picture. It was a huge mistake on our part.

We realized it instantly. And that picture will NEVER appear on our air again.

We had a lot of pictures to choose from and unfortunately that was one of the ones we used.

Again there was no excuse for that. 
And my belief is that when you make a mistake you own up to it.
And that was our mistake.
A big mistake.

Please know that everyone here at KTVU is mortified by what happened.

Also know that it was important enough for me to suggest to our News Director that I write this.

She said she was actually thinking the same thing. 
And she agreed without hesitation.

Nia was a beautiful young girl.
She had her whole life ahead of her.

From me, and all of us at KTVU, I can’t say enough how sorry we are.

On the station's 10 p.m. newscast, Somerville went "off-script" to say the station was sorry for the "mistake" and to say again there was no excuse for it. He then he directly addressed Wilson's family to say that Channel 2 was sorry for their loss.

Remembering "#IfTheyGunMeDown"

News organizations have walked this path many times.  After a Ferguson, Missouri, police officer shot Michael Brown in 2014, a Twitter conversation arose around the hashtag "IfTheyGunMeDown." Twitter users posted photos they predicted that news organizations would grab if they had a fatal run-in with police.

In one 24-hour period, more than 100,000 people posted using that hashtag. Some showed themselves wearing military uniforms or graduating from college, while they predicted news media would grab a photo of them holding a bottle or partying. One post from that movement stuck in my mind:

"So #IfTheyGunnedMeDown the picture they would use is the picture with a gun and knife in my hand knowing that that’s a costume for a short action video I will be in but make it seem like I’m some domestic terrorist and the cops would be in the right for killing me. They’d make sure my pictures of my achievements in not only in academics but in life would never see the light of day."

Lessons Learned

Let's not jump to the conclusion that journalists should never use images that they capture in social media.  We know of lots of cases where Facebook and Instagram pages have given us insight into a killer or victim's life. But one photo is a clue; it is not an answer. One photo is not a biography. It may be a window into the person; it is not the person's whole story in a single frame.

News organizations should use this case as an inoculation against making the same mistakes. Here is some of what we should have learned from this:

One photo does not define a whole person. Imagine that somebody captured an image of you at your worst moment — when you were most embarrassed or compromised. Now imagine that is the photo that news organizations use to tell who and what you are. The image may be accurate, in that it was not altered or unethically cropped. But to be true, the image needs context.

Be sensitive to how an image might reinforce stereotypes. We journalists cringe when we see journalists portrayed in movies asking "How do you feel?" questions of grieving families. We shudder when we see female anchors portrayed by beauty queens and anchors as bloviating know-it-alls. Multiply the damage by a factor of maybe 70 when we portray the most vulnerable populations in stereotypical images. Be especially sensitive to images that may inaccurately/unauthentically reflect race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, education, economic status, age, religion or occupation. 

Some images are not real or lack context. Many of the images that people posted in the #IfTheyGunnedMeDown thread included photos of people pretending to be angry. Some were in costumes. Some were just posing for the camera, as people do. A person holding a beer bottle may appear to be intoxicated when they are just making a funny face. They may appear to be throwing a gang sign when they have no idea what a gang sign is. If they are holding a gun are they taking a self-defense class, is the gun real? Does that T-shirt that the person in the photo is wearing really say what it appears to say, or has the image been altered? How do you know? If the person is standing next to someone in an image, does it imply they know each other? When was the image captured? Where was the image captured? Who captured it? Who posted the image and why did they post it? Did the person who captured the image have permission to post it? Was it posted on a public site or on a private page?

If you did not capture the image, you do not own it. There may be a "fair use" of the image, however. That depends on four key questions:

  1. What is the nature of the copyrighted work? Did the copyright holder intend for it to be shared?
  2. How will it be used? It is easier to legally use a copyrighted work in a nonprofit/educational setting than it is to use another person's work in a commercial way.
  3. How much of the copyrighted work will you use? Are you using one image from a large gallery? Are you using one paragraph from a book? Or are you lifting a whole chapter? The more of a work you use, the greater the legal intrusion. Contrary to popular belief, there is no defined amount, no number of seconds of audio or video that you can safely use. It all depends on how much of the whole you are using. It is always safer to keep the work in its original form. So it is less of an intrusion to take a photo of a magazine cover than it is to lift an image from the cover.
  4. How have you harmed the copyrighted material's monetary value? If you circulate an image the copyright holder is attempting to sell, you may have caused collectible harm.  Think of how musicians claimed harm when people were sharing music files without paying for the downloads. 

Online mistakes can cause lasting harm

NABJ President Sarah Glover shared one other thought that struck a chord with me. She reminded me that whatever we do online, whether it is helpful or harmful, has a long life. It is not surprising that Sarah, an online journalist herself would remind us all: 

"Journalists should report the facts and not facilitate judgment of the victim or publish or air material that would result in readers and viewers judging the victim, either. If the victim has died, understand that everything published is final and this individual will not be able to correct their record."

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    Al Tompkins

    Al Tompkins is The Poynter Institute’s senior faculty for broadcasting and online. He has taught thousands of journalists, journalism students and educators in newsrooms around the world.

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