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Larger Conversation: If And When To Share Videos Of Violence


How eagerly should people be sharing video of a killing? The question comes up because of a case along the Georgia coast. In Glynn County, Ga., two white men shot and killed Ahmaud Arbery back in February. He was a black man whose family said he was out for a run when the white men chased him down. No arrests were made until last week, after video of the killing reached the public. The two have now been arrested and charged. And though the video had an effect, its spread on social media has become part of a larger conversation about when or whether to share videos of violence.

Gene Demby of NPR's Code Switch podcast is following this story. Hi there, Gene.

GENE DEMBY, BYLINE: Good morning, Steve.

INSKEEP: For those who have not seen it, what does this video show?

DEMBY: Yeah, this video is very disturbing. So in the video, Arbery can be seen running down a road, and ahead of him on the road, there's a pickup truck, and a man is standing in the bed of that truck. Another man is standing next to the driver's side door of that truck, and that man is apparently holding a shotgun or a rifle of some sort. Arbery is running, and he and that man get into some sort of tussle on the edge of the frame, and then we hear a gunshot as they fall out of the frame still tussling. We hear another gunshot at the edge of the screen, as they're sort of going in and out of the frame. And then we hear a third shot, and Arbery starts to run away before he stumbles to the ground.

INSKEEP: So who released the video of this shooting?

DEMBY: The person who has claimed responsibility for leaking that video is an attorney who has some ties to the two suspects, although he says he's not representing them in this case. He said in a statement that he was moved to release this video in the interest of transparency and combating speculation around this incident that was growing.

INSKEEP: Well, it certainly seems to have moved law enforcement to act.

DEMBY: Yeah, there was a viral tweet by a man named Keith Lowell Jensen that kind of summed up one way of thinking about this video. It read, quote, "Always remember, they didn't make arrests because they saw the tape; they made arrests because we saw the tape." The they here is law enforcement broadly. And so there's this idea that it's important to make videos like this public because it's a way to activate people, to spur them to push for official action.

INSKEEP: Well, if it did seem to spur official action, what was wrong with showing it?

DEMBY: Yeah, so there's another line of thinking about videos like this, and that's about fatigue because these kinds of videos in our social media age of the last moments of black people during a fatal encounter, they're an entire genus unto themselves, and they spread across the Internet really quickly. You might remember John Crawford or Eric Garner or Tamir Rice. And there was some skepticism being expressed by a lot of people on social media that the outrage around these videos ever amounts to much in the way of legal accountability.

And so there's been a lot of metacommentary around this video about how punishing it is to watch videos like these and these scenes over and over again, to engage with the conversation and also about the ethics of viewing it, about the social value of sharing it.

INSKEEP: OK. It is punishing to see that video, but when you see it, you see the body language of the two suspects.

DEMBY: Yes, you do.

INSKEEP: You see the man fall. It is disturbing. It is memorable. It's harder to ignore than a few sentences in a news story, say, saying that a black man was shot. Hasn't that very often been the case for African Americans, especially that video, that images move people?

DEMBY: Yeah. I mean, it is true that there are these individual moments that become part of our cultural memory, right? They become flashpoints in these stories about race in America. Emmett Till's a very famous case. Rodney King's beating in Los Angeles in the early 1990s is another one. But tellingly, neither of the very powerful images involved in those stories led to convictions, which, again, gets to this issue of fatigue and whether they work in moving people.

I talked to Tara Pixley, who was a photojournalist and a professor of journalism at Loyola Marymount University, and she said all of these ways of experiencing images like these when they spread out into the world are happening at once, right? Some people are activated by viewing them. Some people are further traumatized by viewing them. And some people derive some kind of, you know, sick fascination and enjoyment out of viewing them. And so sharing them in order to shock people's consciences means also necessarily doing these other things that you might not want to do.

INSKEEP: Gene, what does it mean that when we think about these kinds of videos of people being shot by police or shot in extrajudicial acts of violence that - maybe not every time, but very often - the images that come to mind are images of people of color?

DEMBY: Yeah. I mean, these are questions that photojournalists have been debating for a long time, right? Just last year, The New York Times ran a photo showing the dead bodies of Oscar Martinez Ramirez and his 23-month-old daughter laying facedown in a river near the U.S. border. They were looking for asylum in the United States. There was also a very famous image recently shared by The Associated Press on social media of a child's body washed up on a European shore. That child and his family were fleeing the war in Syria.

And so the argument for publishing those images is that they shock people's consciences into action. But critics say that there is actually not a lot of evidence that that's what happens, and there are bodies that we rarely or ever see presented in that way. And so these ethicists are asking us to think more critically about questions like, how do these differences in the way we portray and depict violence and death for certain kinds of people reinforce the ways we think about those people when they're alive?

INSKEEP: Gene, thanks for the thoughts.

DEMBY: Thank you, Steve.

INSKEEP: Gene Demby is with NPR's Code Switch team. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Gene Demby is the co-host and correspondent for NPR's Code Switch team.