#IfTheyGunnedMeDown | Facing History & Ourselves
National President of Black Lawyers for Justice, carries a picture of Michael Brown as he leads demonstrators on a march.


Students explore the potential negative impact of images through the social media protest #IfTheyGunnedMeDown and develop a decision-making process for choosing imagery to represent controversial events.


One 50-min class period


  • Civics & Citizenship
  • History
  • Social Studies




English — US



About This Lesson

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.

  • How can photos add to our understanding of a person or a news story? How might they detract from or limit that understanding?
  • What standards should journalists use to select images to accompany news reports?
  • How can individuals and groups respond when they perceive stereotypes and other possible distortions in a news report?
  • Students will be able to critically examine and analyze a photograph.
  • Students will be able to understand the complex factors that influence image selection.
  • Students will be able to develop guidelines and a decision-making process for choosing imagery to report on controversial events.

This lesson is designed to fit into one 50-min class period and includes:

  • 4 Activities
  • 1 Teaching Strategy
  • 1 Video
  • 1 Extension Activity

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).

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Lesson Plans


This lesson expands on the previous discussion of the power of visual images and the way they influence our response to news and information. Use the Analyzing Visual Images teaching strategy to look at three images of Michael Brown.

  • Break the class into pairs or small groups and give each group one photo of Michael Brown. Tell them that their assignment is to look at the photograph very carefully and analyze only what they see. They must try not to bring what they know or think they know about Michael Brown into their analysis.
  • After students in each group have carefully observed the photograph, have them write down everything they see without providing any interpretation or commentary.
    • Have students consider these questions in their responses: Based on your observations, how would you describe this person? What factors shaped your interpretation? How do you think others might interpret the image and why? Now brainstorm a list of what you don't know. What questions do you have?
    • Reconvene the class. For each photograph, have the assigned groups or pairs report on what they observed in the photo, what kind of person they think he is based on this image, and what questions they have after viewing their photo. (If students don’t raise questions about the photo’s source, you may want to suggest additional questions, such as: Where did the photo come from? How did the news source get the photo and/or from whom? Were there other images available?)
    • Of the three photographs, which would students have selected to run if they were the editors of a major newspaper? Why?

Show the video “#IfTheyGunnedMeDown,” which addresses the Twitter campaign that emerged in response to a photograph of Michael Brown that was widely used in the aftermath of the shooting.

  • Provide students with time to reflect privately on the video in their journals. Does the hashtag campaign resonate with them? Do they remember their own response to the photograph of Michael Brown or the hashtag campaign when it launched? What kinds of thoughts and feelings does the hashtag campaign evoke for them?
  • Discuss students’ thoughts about the video and the hashtag campaign. What was Kenya Vaughn referring to when she said, “People always say, ‘Well, if it bleeds, it leads,’ or ‘The more sensational, the more hits’”? What does that reflect about the demands on news organizations? According to the journalists, what was the impact of the hashtag campaign? How can journalists balance the demands of their job—in the words of Yamiche Alcindor, “As a reporter, you’re up against deadlines, we’re up against word limits, we’re up against all this stuff that are kind of making me try to simplify a story”—with the need to portray individuals objectively and thoughtfully?

Working in groups, challenge students to create a policy that they think news organizations should use to guide image selection when a young person dies or is killed. Direct students to be as specific as possible and to be prepared to justify their policy to the class.

  • Use a series of questions to guide the development of students’ proposed standards, such as:

    You may want to encourage students to think about how to balance high standards with practical realities and the need for flexibility as they develop their ideas.

    • Should the number of pictures published be standardized?
    • What if there is only time or space (on the air or in print) to use one picture? How should that picture be selected?
    • Should the lead photo be provided by the family? Should the family approve the photos to be used?
    • Can photos that are publicly available on the Internet (e.g., from the teen’s social media accounts) be used?
    • What if only one image of the victim is initially available, but it is clear that some people will view it negatively? Should it still be used, or should it be omitted?
    • Will your standards be applied in all cases, or will it depend on the circumstances of the young person’s death?
    • What other details are necessary in order to ensure fairness and accuracy?
  • Once students have developed their policies in groups, reconvene the class and allow a representative from each group to explain his or her group’s policy, followed by questions from the rest of the class. Are there ways in which the policies are not realistic or practical?
  • Once all the groups have presented, give students an opportunity to revise their policies or have the class vote on which policy they believe would be most effective at ensuring the greatest degree of fairness and accuracy.

As a wrap-up, ask students to document in their journals what strategies they can use to critically evaluate images used in social media and news reports in the future. What questions should they ask about these images? What can they do if they perceive stereotypes or other distortions?

Extension Activities

Social media, particularly Twitter, has proved to be a powerful tool for social action. In the words of Yemisi Miller-Tonnet, at the time a 19-year-old student at Spelman College, “Hashtag activism is activism. We might be tweeting from a couch, but we’re also getting up and doing work that needs to be done.”

Students can dig deeper into the use of hashtags by focusing on the emergence of either the #Ferguson or the #BlackLivesMatter hashtag in the aftermath of the events in Ferguson. (They might also consider other hashtags, such as #BlueLivesMatter or #AllLivesMatter.)

  • Working in groups, have students choose one of the two hashtags (#Ferguson or #BlackLivesMatter) and evaluate its impact on the discussions that arose around Ferguson. Direct students to do the following:
    • Identify at least two news reports about the hashtag as background information, including an article on the controversies surrounding these hashtags more generally.
    • Do primary research using the advanced search functions on Twitter to review posts with the hashtag between August 9, 2014, and August 10, 2015. Use the following date ranges to guide these searches:
      • #Ferguson:
        • August 10–16, 2014 (shooting and immediate aftermath), November 23–December 6, 2014 (grand jury decision)
        • August 9–15, 2015 (one-year anniversary of the shooting)
      • #BlackLivesMatter:
        • November 23–December 6, 2014 (grand jury decision)
        • March 4–14, 2015 (Justice Department report)
        • August 9–15, 2015 (one-year anniversary of the shooting)
        • August 30–September 5, 2015 (Black Lives Matter leadership releases public statement to the Democratic National Committee)
    • In their research, students should consider these questions:
      • What are the different ways that people have used this hashtag? What appear to be the goals of the hashtag campaign? Do the purposes of the hashtag appear to have changed over time?
      • How effective do you think the hashtag campaign has been? What makes you think so?
      • What are the top tweets for the hashtag you’re exploring? Is it possible to identify users who retweeted the top posts?
      • What kind of information was/is being shared with the hashtag? Is it accurate? Is it fair?
      • What kinds of actions do users of the hashtag seem to be taking or encouraging?
      • How have users of the hashtag responded to differing perspectives?
  • Users of #BlackLivesMatter in particular, including both supporters and dissenters, have been accused of racism, intolerance, and support of violence. Ask students: After your research, what conclusions can you draw? Is it possible to characterize the way that users of the hashtag generally talk about issues of race? Do all users share the same perspective? Are the charges of racism and intolerance fair? How do you explain the controversies surrounding the two hashtags?
  • Have students prepare a brief presentation summarizing their research, using at least two posts from the hashtag as evidence to support their conclusions.

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