Tuesday, the officer was charged with murder in the case.
Why would the Times show such a graphic video of officer Michael T. Slager shooting Walter L. Scott eight times? Is this just an example of gratuitous violence that will attract online clicks and sharing or are there solid journalistic reasons to let the public see this video? Let me pose some questions that might lead us to a reasoned decision on how or whether to use this video:
What do we know, what do we need to know?
The Times says a lawyer for the Scott family provided the video, which was captured by an unnamed bystander. We do not know why the bystander was capturing the video. We do not know if the video was altered or edited, it does not appear to be and nobody so far has made such a claim.
The Times says, seconds after he fired his weapon, Officer Slager radioed, “Shots fired and the subject is down. He took my Taser.” But the video seems to tell a different story.
The video shows the officer yanking something away from Scott, then Scott runs away and the officer begins firing.
The Times says it appears Scott had been hit by the stun gun and still had wires attached when he began to run. The video does not clearly show how much of a tussle the two had prior to the shooting. It does not show if Scott ever had possession of the stun gun.
Under the Supreme Court’s 1985 “fleeing suspect” ruling, (Tennessee v. Garner) an officer must believe he/she is in danger. In that ruling Justice White said, “We conclude that such force may not be used unless it is necessary to prevent the escape and the officer has probable cause to believe that the suspect poses a significant threat of death or serious physical injury to the officer or others.” Prior to that ruling, police, in some states, had the legal authority to shoot fleeing felony suspects.
The video appears to show Scott is nearly 20 feet away from the officer when the shooting begins. The Times also points out, “The officer then runs back toward where the initial scuffle occurred and picks something up off the ground. Moments later, he drops an object near Mr. Scott’s body, the video shows.”
But we have to admit, we do not know what happened in the moments before Scott broke away and ran. We do not know for certain why the officer picked something up then dropped it next to the body. It sure looks like he is picking up his stun gun and dropping it close to Scott, but the video does not prove that.
The Times said police reports claimed the officers performed CPR on Scott. The video shows no such effort. Scott died on the scene, hands cuffed behind his back.
The video does not show if Scott was violent. Local newspaper reports said Scott had a long criminal history with at least one arrest for assault but most of his crimes were non-violent.
Why is this video newsworthy? What is the journalistic reason for making it public?
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?” Remember, the lawyer for the shooting victim’s family provided the video, so presumably the family wanted the video to go public, which mitigates concerns you might have about being sensitive to the family by showing the video.
A key reason to show video, even graphic video, is that it reveals facts that are counter to official reports. The officer said his life was in danger, the video appears to show otherwise. The officer said Scott took his stun gun, the video calls that into question.
Some TV reports only used the shooting video but not what happened next. There may be a reason to show the disturbing images of Scott lying on the ground. The Times said the officer claimed, in police reports, to have provided CPR on Scott, but the video does not show that to be the case.
Given the recent history of questionable police shootings in the United States, if this shooting had been justified, if the officer had been in danger and the video proved that, the video should have been shown out of fairness to the officer. So it is fair to show the video when the video casts the officer in a bad light too.
What is the Right Tone and Degree of Coverage?
Tone and degree are two words I heard my mentor and friend Bob Steele say often 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? Would they use subjective adjectives to describe the video or narrate it factually without the hype? The Times plays the video without any hype. I would say that placing the video so high in the story, right at the top, lured me to watch the video, be shocked by it, then I dove into the narrative to understand what I saw. It would have been a different experience if I had read the narrative then watched the video. It is tempting to place the video high to get the clicks and views, but placing it lower would have put it into more complete context.
“Alternatives” is another great Bob Steele word. What alternatives could you consider if you chose not to show the graphic video? Still frames might have showed the story accurately but less completely than the video. You cannot see how quickly Scott ran away in a still frame sequence. Still frames would not show how slowly the officer walked around after the shooting. Still frames would not have proven whether the officers attempted CPR. It would be possible to attempt to describe the video with text only, but that is one step away from witnessing it with your own eyes.
This video goes well beyond its 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 are in the truth-telling business. Sometimes the truth is hard to watch. But the public has 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.
Public comments on a newspaper website are not a scientific sample of sentiment but many of the more than one thousand comments on the Times website echoes sentiments like these:
I was shaken and heart broken watching this. If we did not have the video we all know what would have happened. Nothing. So much is wrong with our criminal justice system that is crying to be fixed.
Without the videotape, the police officer would have gotten away with it scot free. How many other similar situations have happened before that no arrests were made?
As an older person, I often feel sorry for the younger generation as they collide with each other and bump into walls because they’re addicted to their phones instead of paying attention to the world around them. Well, I have a different attitude now. Cameras on smartphones have changed the odds for murdering, lying, racist cops with guns. Since they won’t police themselves, the smart phone revolution is doing it for them.