There’s a critically important point being made on Twitter this week. And news outlets across the country should be giving it serious thought.
#IfTheyGunnedMeDown is a social media campaign prompted by the police shooting of Michael Brown, an unarmed black teenager, in Ferguson, Mo., on Saturday. The campaign protests the media’s portrayal of Brown with a negative image rather than a positive one. The photo most circulated appears to show Brown flashing a gang sign (actually a peace sign); it would have been just as easy to circulate a less ambiguous, more neutral photo.
Individuals, mostly young black men, are posting two photos of themselves and asking #IfTheyGunnedMeDown, which photo would the media use? It’s a fair question. One need only think back to the Trayvon Martin shooting and remember the photos that were published then. Negative images of Martin in a hoodie appeared far more often than those of a bright, smiling teen.
One could make arguments about the media grabbing and circulating the first photo they come across, period. But given a little time, a chance to find or ask for a neutral or positive image, editors have a choice to make. Aside from time constraints, other considerations include size and quality of the photo, appropriateness (Is the photo obscene? Too graphic?), composition (Which way is the subject facing in relation to the page layout? Are there other people in the photo that can be cropped out?), and age (How representative is the photo?).
Then, of course, there’s the matter of what the editor wants to portray. Does he want a serious mood? A joyous mood? Does he consciously or subconsciously want to portray a young black man as a thug?
The photo is important. It’s the first thing people see. Instantly it sets the tone. Often it tells the whole story. The choice of photo requires — demands — attention and thought. And if it transmits a message that is biased when it shouldn’t or needn’t be, then the editor has been negligent. Or worse.