Visualizing police brutality and our gun violence epidemic

Once again, this week’s news is dominated by another story of the police killing a black man, further marring our country as a place of grave racial injustices and senseless gun violence. This time, the killing happened in my hometown, Baton Rouge, Louisiana.

According to The Guardian, the shooting of Alton Sterling by two police officers marked the 559th incident of a person killed by police in the United States in the year 2016 alone.

While the story is familiar and painful, we cannot ignore it. Many excellent articles have been written in the day since Sterling was killed, and the media, rightfully so, must continue to hold the powerful accountable and expose wrongdoings and injustices. And the public must pay attention and take action.

What has added to the media and public attention with this particular police killing is the fact that it was captured on video, which spread rapidly across social media.

I haven’t watched the video of the police shooting and killing Alton Sterling, and I don’t intend to. I don’t fault people for watching it. It should be watched. I’m just choosing not to. I acknowledge my privilege in having the luxury to not watch this video. I also acknowledge my responsibility as a mother, a Louisianan and a media scholar to question and to reflect.

Much of my research considers iconic images, those images that come to be known as historical markers of significant events, representing a shared public consciousness.

Iconic images have great value in helping citizens navigate and understand the discourses of political and social contexts of significant events. But before an image can become iconic, it must first be created. There are two paths to this creation:

News > Image > Icon
Image > News > Icon

It is most common for news to create images that may perhaps become iconic. While less common, images can also create news that leads to the image becoming iconic. To illustrate, JFK’s assassination in November 1963 was without question a significant news event. It was within the context of the weight of that news that a young son saluting his father’s coffin became an iconic image. The image of a son’s salute would not necessarily have become iconic without the news value of the event to drive the weight of the image.

Conversely, the brutal police beating of Rodney King in 1991 would not necessarily have become the significant news story that it was without the image of the beating to drive the weight of the news, and subsequent trial and riots. Certainly, the still frames of the police brutally beating Rodney King are etched in our minds as iconic images. And when we hear of another incident of police brutality, we recall the images of King. An academic acquaintance of mine has just published an article about imagery, law enforcement and the search for the truth. Bock writes, “While it’s not infallible, video offers an invaluable way to find the truth.”

Second, we must once again consider the ethics of graphic images and the acceptability of graphic images in our news media. And in this case, the graphic video was captured by a citizen, rather than by a journalist.

The fundamental ethical questions persist: What is the balance between informing audiences and exploiting victims and their families? And what is the balance between shocking audiences and shielding audiences?

“It was the searing image that brought home the events of the day in a way that words alone could not.” 

We’ve all said it, and I’ve written it numerous times in defending journalistic decisions to print graphic, disturbing, shocking, horrific images. We’ve made the argument that the public has a right to see the grim reality of the situation. And not just has a right, but that we are obligated to see the grim reality. We need our leaders to be able to look upon such horrors with their own eyes. We defend the decision to public graphic images based on the watchdog role of the press. And we defend the decision to share these images based on public responsibility and the “power” of the image.

The video of the police shooting and killing Alton Sterling is absolutely newsworthy and critical. And it should be watched. But will it be remembered?

Do we remember Freddie Gray? Do we remember Michael Brown? Did we learn anything? Did anything change?

So while we may claim images have power, what power do images really hold? Especially in an age in which we are overwhelmed with jarring and searing and horrific images. There is no power until we are moved from awareness to action.

So herein is the new question with which I have been grappling: can we still claim ethical justification for printing and sharing grisly and gut wrenching images if they have no real power?

A video I did watch was that of Sterling’s 15-year-old son sobbing at a news conference.

I was instantly reminded of Rich Beckman’s poignant writing: “I would argue that the tears of the living are a more potent weapon against the wrongs of society than the blood of the dead.”

Perhaps this video of a son’s anguish will have more power than that of graphic bloodshed.

Regarding this son’s pain, Roxane Gay writes, “The grief and the magnitude of loss I heard in that boy’s crying reminds me that we cannot indulge in the luxuries of apathy and resignation. If the video of his father’s death feels too familiar, the video of this child’s raw and enormous grief must not. We have to bear witness and resist numbness and help the children of the black people who lose their lives to police brutality shoulder their unnatural burden.”

Let us remember Alton Sterling and his son’s pain. Let us remember that we live in a country plagued by endemic racism. Let us remember our gun violence epidemic. Let us remember these images. Let them have power. Let us all be haunted and moved to action.


“A brass band performed on North Foster Drive on Wednesday to protest the killing of Alton Sterling in Baton Rouge.”

Image credit: William Widmer for The New York Times


2 responses to “Visualizing police brutality and our gun violence epidemic

  1. Pingback: Hypericons | Visual Communication in the Digital Age·

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