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University of Wisconsin–Madison

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Activist challenges the newsworthiness of violent police videos

Despite social action spurred by released videos, one activist doesn’t think that footage of violent confrontations between police and citizens is the answer to changing popular culture.

Matthew Braunginn, co-founder of the Young Gifted and Black Coalition, said videos should be available as part of  public records, but it shouldn’t be publicized through news media.

He said the public shouldn’t require visual proof before having empathy for victims.

“We shouldn’t have heard about Bill Cosby with 30 rape victims to come out – it should have been the first,” he said.  “We shouldn’t have to have seen the video of Ray Rice dragging his wife out of the elevator for us to see how horrific it was.”

Braunginn said visual proof is also nonessential in the case of videos classified as public records, like police videos.

The release of videos showing violent acts continues to stir ethical debates by victim advocacy groups, law enforcement, news media, and audiences. Drawing attention to police brutality distributed body camera footage is a common argument for those hoping to change police culture.

Al Tompkins, senior faculty at the Poynter Institute, said violent videos should only be shown publicly if they tell the audience something they didn’t already know or understand.

“Graphic images don’t always have great value unless they shed light on the facts of the story in ways we can’t get without seeing those images,” Tompkins said.

At the end of November, video of a black teen shot a year before was released, making headlines. An organizer in Chicago’s chapter of Black Lives Matter said it was important for people to see the footage so police officers will be held accountable.

Squad car dashboard footage of a Chicago police officer fatally shooting 17-year-old Laquan McDonald was released to the public against the McDonald family’s wishes after a freedom of information request was granted by a court.

Community members protested after the release of this graphic footage showing McDonald being shot 16 times.

The officer shown firing his gun was charged with first-degree homicide.

That the officer was charged the same day as the court ordered the video be released was said to show the power of video to affect change.

Tompkins said the value in releasing the video is to prove the Chicago police weren’t telling the whole story with the accurate details.

“In the case of the police officer shooting, that very graphic video, in fact, showed us a series of events that is contrary to what the police said occurred,” Tompkins said.

But, Braunginn said he thinks there are larger systemic factors at play.

“Black victims of police or state violence have to have overwhelming visual evidence that it has occurred for a lot of people to actually believe that it has happened,” he said.

“That’s the problem – we shouldn’t have to see it to believe how horrific it is,” Braunginn said.  “He shot him 16 times. Knowing the details should be enough in and of itself.”

“It’s become almost a fetish of seeing black death. We’re glorifying it and desensitizing ourselves to it,” he said.  “But this is really nothing new; this is just an evolution of public lynchings where whole towns used to get together to witness a lynching.”

Leland Pan, Dane County (Wis.) Board District 5 supervisor, said releasing videos promotes transparency.

“I think it’s important to protect the rights of privacy,” Pan said.  “But that being said, I think when we have such an issue of potential officer misconduct, I think it becomes really important to bring police practice into light.”

Police often oppose immediate release of videos that might be part of an investigation.

Cpt. Joe Balles with Madison police’s South District said timing is everything in the release of video footage in the case of a police brutality investigation.

In a the case of a police officer whose decision to shoot a suspect is questioned, the video might be evidence in two separate investigations: A criminal investigation and an internal investigation to see if police policies and procedures were followed.

In the criminal investigation, the district attorney decides if the officer should be criminally charged for improperly using deadly force, said Balles, who is part of the restorative justice program.

“In the first three months (or more) of this investigation, the media is denied access to the footage because it’s an ongoing criminal investigation and the officer could potentially be pending a prosecution,” Balles said.

Police camera footage is often withheld in cases of police brutality on the grounds that it is part of an ongoing investigation.

“That’s often the excuse they give, but it’s often not a very legitimate excuse,” Tompkins said.  “A reasonable person would ask how long it takes to investigate.  In Chicago, did it actually take a year to investigate the shooting?  It seems highly likely that it did.”

“What often happens is the video is withheld just because it’s not politically convenient to release it, and that’s not a good enough idea because that delay just breeds mistrust,” Tompkins said.

Depending on the length of the internal investigation –  which Balles said it is faster than the criminal one  – the police chief makes the decision to release the video.

“The community could be demanding to see that video, and the chief has to weigh their needs with his needs to ensure that there’s a fair and impartial investigation done,” Balles said.

When the videos are released, newsrooms must make decisions about how to share the video with the public.

Decisions about how to use the McDonald video varied from showing it in full, to not showing the shooting at the end, to showing only snippets.

When making a decision about releasing videos to the public,  Tompkins said news organizations should remember that videos that are part of the public record aren’t automatically newsworthy. And if they are newsworthy, there are a few important things to consider.

“It’s very important not to show it as ‘fight highlights’ but to put context on it,” Tompkins said.  “We have an obligation to the people involved to put some kind of understanding on it, especially when it’s graphic.”

He thinks body camera footage is a matter of public importance.

“Body camera video ought to be public records unless there’s an overwhelming reason not to allow it to be public – just in the same way that 911 calls are public and should be,” Tompkins said.

“It is interesting, isn’t it, that the video gets withheld when it fails to exonerate the officer but when it does show that the officer acted righteously the video seems to come forward pretty quick,” he said.

Braunginn said the release of violent and disturbing incidents differs when it involves black people versus white people.  When a white male commits a mass shooting, he said, CNN would give a trigger warning and only air the footage every 30 minutes.

“With Walter Scott they showed it on repeat over and over again – you couldn’t get away from it.  And they’re going to do it again with [Laquan McDonald] over and over again,” Braunginn said.

In South Carolina, Scott was gunned down by a police officer while running away from him.  Police dashboard footage captured Scott running from his car after the officer pulled him over for a broken tail light.

A bystander captured video of the events that ensued once the officer caught up to Scott.  The officer argued there was a struggle for his weapon, causing him to feel threatened and fire at Scott eight times while he ran away.

Braunginn said the news media and audiences need to examine their double standard for airing and watching violent videos.

“When it came to that white shooting, we have to think of the victim and be careful and respectful,” he said.  “But it’s part of not seeing black Americans as human – it’s desensitizing.”

Footage from the scene: Considerations for eye witness video

Unlike a time when visual information was identified, captured and distributed almost exclusively by professionals, the increasing use of content produced by eyewitnesses is unveiling the potential and peril of such footage.

Questions about who is capturing images, who is featured in said images and whether or not consent is involved are only some of the things that Madeleine Bair, program manager of WITNESS Media Lab, said journalists should be considering.

“The question really comes down to how we apply traditional ethical practices to using this modern tool of eyewitness footage,” Bair said. “I think we should treat all eyewitness media with a dose of healthy journalism skepticism.”

In an effort to beginning addressing these questions, WITNESS, a Brooklyn-based international organization that trains and supports people in human rights video documentation, recently announced its Ethical Guidelines in Using Eyewitness Footage for Human Rights. Witness defines eyewitness footage as video taken at the scene of an incident by private people, including bystanders and people involved in the situation.In addition to tangible checklists, a variety of examples and situational commentary, the release of the WITNESS guidelines underscores the rising popularity and importance of eyewitness content.

“The ability for average citizens to document what they are experiencing or what their community is experiencing is really revolutionizing news gathering and human rights documentation,” Bair said. “It allows citizens to document what’s going on in real-time, and that gives a voice to so many more people and so many more places.”

Claire Wardle, co-founder of Eyewitness Media Hub, said not only does eyewitness content give voice to those who produce it, but it also has become an expectation by those who consume it. The organization is a nonprofit dedicated to exploring the ethical, legal and logistical use of user content in news.

“Up until relatively recently, news arrived and then you’d have the aftermath of an event. Now because almost everyone has a very high resolution camera in their pocket in the form of a phone, we’re now getting images of the actual event there and then,” she said.

This perceived demand has led to increased use of eyewitness media, though a 2014 study from Eyewitness Media Hub suggests that increased awareness about the legal and ethical dimensions of using such content has not yet been realized. The study found that photographs and videos featured in online newspaper articles were often presented inaccurately or used without permission.

And even if newsrooms may be making strides in seeking permission to republish, Wardle said, journalists tend to altogether ignore the consent of the individuals featured in the videos.

“In the human rights space, they’ve very strong on thinking about who’s actually in the videos or images,” she said. “Whereas from a journalism perspective, reporters are quicker to ask about who owns the rights to the content. The rights of the people in the videos or images is more of an afterthought.”

Wardle argues that despite the competitive environment of the 24-hour news cycle, obtaining consent of individuals in footage – even those shot by citizen journalists – is important.

“Putting out information that is inaccurate or unethical is not helpful for a newsroom business model,” she said. “I think it’s all about remaining competitive, yes, but also about being right. Even if the reason for abusing eyewitness content is business models, I think newsrooms will still have to start thinking a little bit more critically about how they use this kind of content.”

Wardle also said that just because information is posted publicly online or through social media, journalists should not assume the right to share the information more widely.

“Most people have no idea about what publication means. These platforms are all publishing platforms, but people haven’t thought that through when they’re posting to their 50 friends, they’re not in a million years thinking that it’s going to end up somewhere else,” she said. “I think over time, users will get more sophisticated and newsrooms will recognize that trust is more important to them as a brand.”
Besides taking points from ethical guidelines like those released by WITNESS, Wardle said that honoring the rights of individuals featured in eyewitness footage will really take off with a change in journalist mindsets.

“Journalists should always be thinking as if these eyewitnesses and featured individuals were a member of their family,” she said. “If this happened to a member of your family, how would they feel? And while, yes, journalists have to do their job, there is a way to do it in a way that is both sensitive and informative. It’s not all or nothing.”

Bair said she hopes that the WITNESS guidelines will be just one part of a larger conversation that will begin to address these ethical issues of using and sharing eyewitness content.

“It’s really about raising awareness and starting a discussion about how to put ethical standards into practice in a modern era of documentation,” she said. “That’s what we hope that these guidelines will really do.”

For Wardle, navigating the ethics of eyewitness journalism is simply an extension of the golden rule.

“Ultimately, the ethics of using eyewitness media comes down to how you treat people,” Wardle said. “When eyewitness media gets shared widely, there’s a responsibility, really, to think about the people who are caught up in that story.”

Checklist developed by WITNESS for eye witness footage of events. Used with permission. The guidelines are downloadable as a PDF from WITNESS.