#IfTheyGunnedMeDown takes media to task

Two photos of Michael Brown
Two photos of Michael Brown

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.


Two photos of Trayvon Martin
Two photos of Trayvon Martin

From #IfTheyGunnedMeDown:

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13 thoughts on “#IfTheyGunnedMeDown takes media to task

      1. Reason to be concerned. The last well educated group is aging. Left will be those used to being prompted/cued for answers and used to multiple choices with answers provided – and plenty of excuses for all problems.
        Someone said history seems to show all democracies commit suicide (excuse the phrase at this time) by being too kind, too lenient and “accepting” of what shouldn’t be excused or accepted.
        The increasing division, the escalating of violence to solve problems and the total lack of willingness to agree to disagree and get along will be the end of us.

  1. There is a firm basis for this concern in the science of psychology. This is a paragraph from the Wikipedia entry on confirmation bias:

    Preference for early information

    Experiments have shown that information is weighted more strongly when it appears early in a series, even when the order is unimportant. For example, people form a more positive impression of someone described as “intelligent, industrious, impulsive, critical, stubborn, envious” than when they are given the same words in reverse order. This irrational primacy effect is independent of the primacy effect in memory in which the earlier items in a series leave a stronger memory trace. Biased interpretation offers an explanation for this effect: seeing the initial evidence, people form a working hypothesis that affects how they interpret the rest of the information.

    One demonstration of irrational primacy used colored chips supposedly drawn from two urns. Participants were told the color distributions of the urns, and had to estimate the probability of a chip being drawn from one of them. In fact, the colors appeared in a pre-arranged order. The first thirty draws favored one urn and the next thirty favored the other. The series as a whole was neutral, so rationally, the two urns were equally likely. However, after sixty draws, participants favored the urn suggested by the initial thirty.

    Another experiment involved a slide show of a single object, seen as just a blur at first and in slightly better focus with each succeeding slide.[ After each slide, participants had to state their best guess of what the object was. Participants whose early guesses were wrong persisted with those guesses, even when the picture was sufficiently in focus that the object was readily recognizable to other people.

    1. While individuals can indulge/ignore this effect as much as they want, those who disseminate information to the masses have a responsibility to be aware of it and make a conscious effort to approach each situation as new and unique. They should exercise some judgment. Unfortunately, the rise of advocacy journalism (versus the balanced neutral approach I was taught) seems to say it’s okay to put your own personal slant on your stories. Dangerous, considering so much of the public fails to exercise any critical thinking and accepts every report as unbiased truth.

... and that's my two cents