This lesson continues our exploration of the power and pitfalls of images. It is designed to help students explore the impact of editorial decisions by focusing on the issues invoked by the hashtag #IfTheyGunnedMeDown. Students will analyze various images of Michael Brown that surfaced in the wake of his shooting, explore the social media response to these images, and then develop journalistic guidelines for image selection. Examining this social media campaign through the lens of news literacy will help students challenge and extend their evolving understanding of bias, the role of the press (and other media makers), and the importance of journalistic standards.
The selection of pictures to accompany news reports is often complicated and raises compelling questions. As journalists evaluate the value and newsworthiness of an image, should they also consider all the possible ways the image might be interpreted? How can they? Should journalists actively avoid using images that might reinforce stereotypes and other potentially harmful misconceptions, even if the images are accurate?
#IfTheyGunnedMeDown is one of several hashtags used to call attention to alleged racial injustice in the aftermath of Michael Brown’s death. This particular tag was used to highlight the perceived tendency of news agencies to select images of young black men that perpetuate stereotypes. The impetus for the campaign was a controversial image of Michael Brown that his family provided to major media outlets and was used in the hours and days after the shooting.
Young people and activists used the hashtag to underscore and challenge the ways in which images of shooting victims can influence public opinion by affirming damaging racial stereotypes. Typically people used the hashtag to ask which of two starkly different images of themselves—one with overtly negative connotations and another with either neutral or overtly positive ones—would be used by news media if they were killed by police.
You may wish to remind students that some people believe just the opposite of what those who participated in the #IfTheyGunnedMeDown campaign do: that news media are overly conscious of race and attempt to portray young victims of color sympathetically by intentionally choosing the most innocent images available.
It is important to note that this campaign may cause some students’ cynicism about news media to emerge. The contributors to the hashtag campaign often appear to regard “the media” as a single entity with a coherent and coordinated ideological agenda (e.g., “The media wants the public to think X”). This agenda is often assumed to be in lockstep with the agendas and interests of other powerful institutions—like the police, the federal government, or corporations—or of prominent progressive social movements such as Black Lives Matter.
These kinds of assumptions are not only an oversimplification of how most news media operate, they are also a distortion that is ultimately disempowering for young people and civically damaging to the nation. This kind of cynicism exacerbates news consumers’ tendency toward confirmation bias. It invites people to dismiss sources of information out of hand based on ambiguous assumptions about the intent or motive of the creator(s) rather than on specific, substantive claims about the information itself. It also ignores and obscures the watchdog role that most news organizations still play to the public’s benefit (albeit to varying degrees).