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This undated family photo provided by the Brown Family and held by Michael Brown Sr., shows Michael Brown Sr., at right, his son, Michael Brown, top left, and a young child. Michael Brown, 18, was shot and killed in a confrontation with police in the St. Louis suburb of Ferguson, Mo, on Saturday, Aug. 9, 2014. (AP Photo/Jeff Roberson)
#IfTheyGunnedYouDown: How I try to get victim photos for The Tribune

The #IfTheyGunnedMeDown hashtag raises powerful questions about how the media presents victims of violence, particularly when those victims are young men of color.

The discussion began in reaction to photos used in news coverage of Michael Brown, the unarmed, black teenager who was shot to death by police in Ferguson, Mo. Some initial news reports used this photo, purportedly Brown’s profile picture on Facebook:

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In later reports, this photo appeared:

Critics accused media of gravitating toward the first photo because it seemed to confirm racial stereotypes and left audiences to assume that Brown’s hand gesture was a gang sign. They argue that, for white victims, the media will go out of their way to find a photo that is neutral to positive, passing over controversial or unflattering images; for minority victims, the media will overlook neutral or positive pictures and use any image audiences might construe as "thuggish," leading them to think the victim brought his death upon himself.

Twitter users began posting pairs of photos of themselves, one professional or showing success — graduations, military service, happy family moments — and the other decidedly not professional: Middle fingers, slouches, outstretched tongues, frowns, whiskey bottles, and assorted hand signs make appearances. The posts ask: Which picture would be in the news #IfTheyGunnedMeDown?

I’ve solicited victim photos many times as a public safety reporter for The Tribune. Not all news organizations do things the same way, but this is how I handle the task, subject to the final judgment of our photo editor.

The three top factors are:

1. Availability. Our preference is for family or friends to provide a photo. The Tribune usually uses Facebook photos with permission from the person who posted it; if the deceased is the poster, we try to find family. Sometimes the first and only photo available to us is a jail mugshot.

2. Clarity. The subject’s face needs to be plainly visible, not blurry, grainy or pixelated, distant, obscured, or appearing in profile. If the subject is wearing sunglasses or is holding something to the mouth — food, a drink, a cigarette — I ask for another one.

3. Accuracy. We want to use a picture that is true to the person’s appearance and recognizable to those who knew him or her. If the subject is making a contorted or goofy face in a photo, I’d ask for another one.

That would eliminate a lot of the "bad" photos proposed on #IfTheyGunnedMeDown. Also, we don’t use images of profane gestures.

But I think the comparison photos speak strongly to any journalist who has to make a decision about victim photos, many of which fall in greyer areas. I honestly wouldn’t have given a lot of thought to Michael Brown’s first picture. It’s a usable photo by our normal criteria. I personally don’t consider it thuggish; the hand gesture means nothing to me. But looking at it again, in light of #IfTheyGunnedMeDown, I think a reasonable journalist could anticipate the photo would inflame some readers’ racism in a way that distracts from the story and hurts the bereaved. Because of #IfTheyGunnedMeDown, I think these choices will get more care.

In our coverage of the fatal police shooting of Dillon Taylor on Monday in Salt Lake City, our only immediately available photo of Taylor was a jail mugshot from an arrest that so far has no demonstrable connection to the shooting. With the help of the victim’s family, we now have a personal photo. Our goal isn’t to provide a positive picture or a negative picture, but we do want a complete picture.

Now we’re a bit closer to that.

— Erin Alberty


Twitter: @erinalberty

Copyright 2014 The Salt Lake Tribune. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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