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It’s time to take videos of Black Americans dying offline

Professor Allissa V. Richardson explains why media companies should stop sharing videos depicting graphic violence against Black Americans.

It’s time to take videos of Black Americans dying offline
[Photo: Yasin Ozturk/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images]
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Since 2013, when Black Lives Matter erupted on the scene to challenge the acquittal of Florida resident George Zimmerman for killing 17-year old Trayvon Martin, images of Black Americans dying on-screen have become as constant as air. In the last week, videos pertaining to at least four instances of police violence against Black Americans have circulated online. At the same time, a Minnesota jury found former police officer Derek Chauvin guilty for the murder of George Floyd.

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The video of Chauvin kneeling on Floyd’s neck while Floyd gasped for breath sparked a movement for police accountability that led to Chauvin’s conviction on all charges. But that video, which has continued to circulate, is also deeply traumatizing. Now Allissa V. Richardson, an author and journalism professor at the University of Southern California, is calling for more guardrails around publishing visual accounts of violence against Black people.

In an op-ed for Vox, she explains how the Broadcast Decency Enforcement Act of 2005 could be used to fine media companies for distributing these distressing videos. She says she believes it is necessary to stop media companies from profiting off of Black death by removing the financial incentives. Richardson spoke with Fast Company about how outlets should instead be trying to offer more nuanced coverage of Black people who die at the hands of police.

Fast Company: Why are you calling for a moratorium on broadcasting violent videos of police brutality both on television and online?

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Allissa V. Richardson: I think that we’ve got enough proof now and we’ve got enough pain. We need some policy changes.

In the past we’ve considered things indecent that pale in comparison to what we see today. Think about the origins of the Broadcast Decency Enforcement Act. We started this whole increase in fines for indecent behavior in the public square—and increased the fines tenfold in fact—just because we saw a wardrobe malfunction at the Super Bowl. And then I began to think of other instances that we’ve recently seen not falling under that same law. And I thought, Well, why not? Why hasn’t this law been applicable here?

We have that as a journalistic standard already. When we have families who have not been contacted upon someone’s death, we make sure that we don’t go reporting on those kinds of things before the family knows about it. That used to be sacrosanct. Now if there’s a video, we just roll it and figure out facts later. And that inverse knee-jerk reaction is one that’s inadvertently racist. Making Black people be the only ones who have to see themselves die on prime-time television with no control over where their family member ends up is harmful.

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Would you want to amend the Broadcast Decency Enforcement Act of 2005 in any way to directly address how these violent videos should be handled by media outlets?

This legislation would [use fines] to discourage journalists from just using this kind of footage irresponsibly and looping it like sports replays. It would require them to go the extra mile, to contact the family to ask is it okay if we use this, because that’s what we would do for most other cases. And in many cases, social media [companies] may have to step in . . . when the family has not yet been contacted.

There is a real profit in Black pain.”

Allissa V. Richardson

There is a real profit in Black pain and that’s why we are the ones who we are seeing on TV being harmed all of the time. Violence against our bodies has been mediated for quite some time, from the old grainy image of whipped Pete, who turns his back toward a journalist to show the scars from his master whipping him, all the way to the civil rights movement when Black people were tossed around with fire hoses, shoved at lunch counters, and beaten on Bloody Sunday. It’s become almost normalized to see Black people being harmed in service of civil rights activism.

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How did family consent become the cornerstone of your idea for how to create legislation around videos that depict violence against Black people?

[When] we’re just looping [these videos] almost with a casual air of a sports highlight, we’re asking families to do three things. We’re asking them to engage in this vicious cycle where the first step is pre-litigating that their family member didn’t deserve to die at the hands of police. Then we’re turning that footage over to the public, so it can enter this court of public opinion where journalists and scholars like me get to pick it apart before it ever even goes to trial—if it goes to trial because remember, people like Eric Garner never got that same George Floyd-style justice. And then the third thing we ask them to do—if it does go to trial—we ask for that video to remain online and subject to an enduring conversation, which then entombs their loved one online.

Mamie Till-Mobley, Emmett Till’s mom, had a choice and she made sure people knew: “I am asking John Johnson of Jet magazine to publish this because I want the world to see what they did to my baby.”

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But what if she didn’t have any control over that narrative? How would she feel and would it have the same effect? Would we be numb to it after seeing it so many different times? The real danger here is not just the trauma that it brings families and onlookers, but the danger of us eventually becoming numb to these videos, especially as the world opens back up and we’re not all glued to our computers.

You say we as a society we have forced Black Americans to pre-litigate instances of police brutality or violence against Black Americans in general. How can we contend with that system?

We should definitely be questioning why we feel like Black people need to be humanized. They were already human. Like why is that phrase “unarmed Black man” even used? It’s because we’re actively trying to prove that this person didn’t deserve it.

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Why did we feel like they needed to prove that they were exemplary or excellent just to prove that they deserve to be here? And I see this framing all the time; I’m seeing it now with the story about [16 year-old Ma’Khia] Bryant [who was shot and killed by a Columbus, Ohio, police officer on Tuesday], about her being an honor roll student, as if that is a salient feature. People don’t have to be perfect to still be alive. And I think that that is the linchpin of really what we’re talking about: We didn’t believe that Black people could be trusted in the first place. We believed in this whole myth of inherent criminality of this uncontrolled group of people who just have to be corralled by police.

We have to unlearn a lot of the propaganda that’s been taught to us. If we’re really going to dismantle the way that police are terrorizing these communities, we’ve got to trust Black people. We’ve got to believe that these instances that are happening warrant further investigation. I’m not asking that we just trust it completely without any type of scrutiny, but I’m asking for the same due process that the insurrectionists are receiving right now to be extended to African Americans.

How do you think this legislation will change the way stories of violence against Black Americans are reported?

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Removing that image in the first line of reporting really does two things: It reduces that gaze upon Black death, making it less solemn. It also makes us, as journalists, tell deeper, more humanizing stories.

These videos have become the lead that has become the story, not the person as a person.”

Allissa V. Richardson

An actual broadcast journalist asked me last night, “What can I do? I work in images. How do I tell these stories?” And I told her quite bluntly, “I would imagine that the victim is white.” And she said, “Wow, that really hurts because you’re right. When I do have a white victim of a mass shooting, for example, I work very hard to find pictures of their loved ones, their pets. I try to find out what hobbies they were into. If it was a college student, I try to figure out what their major was. And I do kind of this Herculean effort to stitch together who they were as a person and tell the story of how they died, but also how they lived.”

These videos have become the lead that has become the story, not the person as a person or the person living their lives. It’s really forced African Americans to try to create counter-narratives to the dominant ones. For example, if you think about Lieutenant Caron Nazario being pulled over [by two Virginia police officers in December] in his military uniform. His family and loved ones care so much about who he was as a person that they put out their own pictures on social media to say, this is him at graduation. This is him in his dress uniform earning his degree because we don’t want the only image of him to be that of him on the ground with his eyes full of pepper spray.

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We want people to know that he is a whole person, that he’s calm, that he’s [a relative] of Eric Garner. That full reporting did not come from journalists digging. I get so discouraged and disappointed with our field—why didn’t we unearth that? Why didn’t we dig? Why didn’t we connect those dots? Why did we put the onus on the Black family again, to pre-litigate? To prove this was a human being who deserved better?

Citizen journalists and activists have been at the forefront of a lot of the reporting on police brutality. Do you see them changing their tactics to exclude this kind of video?

You’re seeing a lot of citizen journalists who are bypassing social media and taking their video straight to high-profile lawyers that we know. For example, in my book I talk about Chris Stewart [a lawyer for George Floyd’s family] who told me that Walter Scott’s family hit him up on Facebook and said, “We have a video. What the police said happened actually did not happen that way.” And then they gave him a call and he said that he drove to South Carolina from Georgia where he lives and he talked a ton with them and saw the video and said, “This is going to be our approach from here on.”

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Can you talk about the double standard the institution of journalism applies to Black people who are subjected to violence versus white people?

We don’t broadcast white people dying violently, because we don’t need to. We believe something bad happened. We think it’s indecent to show. And when those kinds of videos do pop up online, or even on television, they are scrubbed from the internet and on air immediately.

We need to get to a level where we are trusting that something bad happened when a [Black] 13 year-old gets shot.”

Allissa V. Richardson

If you think about Daniel Pearl [the American journalist who in 2002 was abducted and beheaded by terrorists in Pakistan] for example, I was horrified by that video as a young journalist. And I was quite glad when it disappeared from the web, because every time I want to research or find out the latest development of how his family is being taken care of, I don’t want to have to see that video of him being beheaded.

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We need to get to a level where we are trusting that something bad happened when a [Black] 13 year-old gets shot or a 15-year old gets shot.

What about families who do want their stories to be heard?

If the family would like this to be publicized in the same way that Emmett Till’s mom had a choice, I do think that they should still have that choice.

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Might the legislation you’re proposing limit the reach of stories about police brutality in cases when the family is trying to garner public support?

No, I think it will actually make [these videos] more remarkable when the family does want you to see [them]. When you see them in rapid succession, one after another, one becomes numb.

If we think about just last week, before this historic verdict, when we were in the middle of the Derek Chauvin trial and we heard of Daunte Wright. And then we saw the Lieutenant Caron Nazario video. And then we learned of Adam Toledo in Chicago—all in the same week. And I heard so many people say, “Oh, what happened now? You know, I just, I tuned out, I didn’t pay attention.”

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What would happen if we only elevated those where the family members just felt so moved, so compelled that they put it out?

Facebook could conceivably take down violent videos when the family has not consented to distribution in the same fashion it does for copyrighted video. But do you worry that in a world where your proposed amendment becomes law that Facebook might unilaterally take down all images of violence involving Black people, even when there is consent?

A lot of that is going on already. I definitely wrote about how they banned a lot of content last summer. Anything that was labeled “Black Lives Matter” or had “Black” or “African American” in it was disallowed on the site and people started to figure out, “Hey, my things aren’t being seen.”

Even the title of my book, which is an academic book, it’s not even partisan, Bearing Witness While Black, could not be advertised on Facebook’s platforms, Facebook or Instagram, since they’re all owned by the same company. And the minute that I [told them] this is the title, they said, this violates our policies and we can’t advertise this because we don’t have political advertising on here. Meanwhile I’m seeing all kinds of other books as well as hate speech from white supremacist groups and horrible, horrific language from [former President Donald Trump], which wasn’t silenced until the insurrection on January 6th. So that has already been a caveat.

I believe activists are going to different places to get the word out, whether it’s creating their own outlets, as they’ve already started to do, or reaching out directly to journalists they trust, and definitely the lawyers that they trust most.

About the author

Ruth Reader is a writer for Fast Company. She covers the intersection of health and technology.

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