Pictorial stereotypes and the #IfTheyGunnedMeDown Response

On August 9, 2014 an unarmed 18-year-old African American teenager named Michael Brown was fatally shot by police in Ferguson, Missouri.

In reporting the news, many media outlets choose to use a photo that presented a stereotypical “thug” image of Brown.

The question many people are asking—and rightfully so—is, Why did the media choose to use that photo instead of a photo of Brown playing football or a photo from his recent high school graduation?

In frustrated response, a viral hashtag has emerged via Twitter that rhetorically questions the media for the stereotypical visual portrayal of Brown. With the hashtag, #IfTheyGunnedMeDown, people from diverse racial backgrounds are posting adjacent photos of themselves: one playing to stereotypes, the other not. The question posed is, which photo of me would the media choose to use? As of this writing, the hashtag has been used in nearly 160,000 tweets.

This critical ethical issue facing the mass media is that of pictorial stereotypes. The goal of the American news media should be to bring objective and accurate information to audiences. Mass media information takes many forms including that of the printed word, the spoken word, and the photograph. As Walter Lippmann famously wrote in 1922, the mass media help to form the “pictures in our head.” The “pictures in our head” then become our understanding of the world and its people, places, and ideas.

The topic of pictorial media stereotypes first made headlines 20 years ago following Time magazine’s infamous darkening of OJ Simpson’s mugshot, following his arrest in the summer of 1994. The image of Simpson was darkened dramatically, and he was put into the shadows with darker eyes and a heavy five o’clock shadow. In making Simpson look darker, Time was essentially saying, the darker someone’s skin, the scarier and guiltier they are.

Audiences formulate their interpretations of the world based, in part, on the images they see in the media. As such, the mass media have the responsibility to ensure that the images that they present are an accurate depiction of reality. Much scholarship into the area of media stereotyping has shown clear evidence of pictorial stereotypes in the media. The media treatment of Michael Brown’s photo is immediately reminiscent of Trayvon Martin.

The danger in pictorial stereotypes in the media is in their ability to create and perpetuate incorrect mindsets in audiences. Visual scholar Paul Martin Lester argues,

“The only place where people regularly and over a long time see members from other cultural groups is in the pages of newspapers and magazines, on television, and in the movies. But when most of those media images are misleading viewers aren’t challenged to examine the bases of their prejudices and do something about them. To change people’s minds about diversity may require far-reaching changes in the entire culture” (p. 92).

It is apparent that pictorial stereotypes will continue to occur in the mass media. And we—as audiences and scholars—must continue to question them and to fight against them. Perhaps social media based activism (like the #IfTheyGunnedMeDown hashtag) may be just such the response and change of which Lester writes.


Feature image courtesy of Tyler Atkins via Twitter and the New York Times.

Lippmann, W. (1922). Public Opinion. New York: Macmillian.

Lester, P. M. (2000). Visual Communication: Images with Messages. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth.


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