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“The media’s the most powerful entity on earth. They have the power to make the innocent guilty and to make the guilty innocent, and that’s power. Because they control the minds of the masses.” — Malcolm X (El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz), 1963
An intense debate is playing out about the sanctity of journalism and integrity of the profession. People are demanding that photojournalists shield the identity of protesters rising up around the country in response to police brutality. This has stirred up questions and concerns about the role of the media, and it’s raising questions about the nature of journalists’ assignments. What exactly are these protests in relation to the photographer? Does a moment like this not require people to think critically about journalistic ethics?
For four years during a period of escalating state violence, many journalists have done an amazing job keeping the public informed. Yet others have shown that they’re dedicated to acting as the untrustworthy fourth branch of government many suspect them of being. Any time things grow especially tense during a moment of repression, journalists who are committed to performative objectivity have chosen sides. Power makes it so, and ignoring its presence leads to the issues we see playing out before us in the wake of nationwide uprisings against police violence.
Photojournalists that reject the notion that they should stop showing protesters’ faces think they’re remaining true to their craft. Still, in a similar vein, as the courts that capture Black people for imprisonment, the odds are already stacked against many of their subjects. After all, their subjects are people whose lives are enshrouded by racist subjection. The reality is those who capture their likeness are acting as informants. Enough of them have preexisting relationships with law enforcement and their own agendas. The current conversation is largely about the false idea of debate being a way to reconcile problems, an idea to which even mostly conservative right-wing police forces don’t subscribe. So, it’s no surprise to see endless videos of shocked reporters, photographers (and so on) being attacked by police (to their dismay).
It makes sense. The police kill and photojournalists regularly deal in brutality and traffic death images (especially death images of poor people, Black people, and people of color) as a form of currency in their profession. Images of the brutalized, dead, and dying can buy awards and recognition in this world. When the opportunity presents itself, many will rush to participate because they subscribe to the doctrine of redistributing pain as it is, not as it should be. Those who are regularly harmed have to be further hurt, re-traumatized, degraded, and imprisoned all over again. They have to be, so that callous photographers can say “I won” in a world where white supremacy sets the rules of engagement.
The media is always a difficult place to navigate. It’s a realm that’s often scorned by distrust and suspicion. Oppressed people in the United States have a unique distrust that has come with years and years of violation. For Black people specifically, the media has been a place of derision that has often further enabled and reinforced anti-Black attitudes. With regard to police brutality, the media has a sinister history that it cannot escape by pretending things are different now. Even now, the New York Times, which regularly embraces violent opinion pieces, has published an atrocious op-ed by Senator Tom Cotton calling for military action against protesters. I choose not to link to any of this here because I am committed to the ethic of protecting human life. Now former editorial page editor, James Bennet, justified endangering the lives of many (including his Black colleagues), offering the importance of “debate” as an explanation. Police and the military have brutalized Black communities ever since police forces emerged from slave patrols. After all, slave owners could place ads in newspapers to enlist slave catchers to capture and return the people they viewed as property.
Today, Black people still live under the threat of extrajudicial execution at any moment just because a police officer, or a racist vigilante, feels like it. It’s taken generations and countless stolen lives to build the amount of scrutiny we have around policing today, but it’s still not guaranteed that the media will approach the police’s positions with the necessary skepticism. Far too many of those who consider themselves journalists regularly offer up police reports and narratives about any given Black person in a verbatim rehearsal of a racist script. Without any critical thinking, their lazy and uncritical bolstering of state accounts of murder help make impunity an everyday occurrence. Meanwhile, other journalists have had to fight for the right to expose the truth and tell stories by building a better code of ethics.
This disregard of power via so-called objectivity remains an issue. Aside from the whiteness of newsrooms, the institutions themselves function similarly to other exclusionary institutions. They force those who hope to change it from the inside to adapt to their principles, and forces them out if they refuse. Like the government, these are spaces that are more one-sided than they would like people to know. The illusion of “choice” at the voting booth is also reflected at the newsstand, and on cable news and internet media sites.
In the United States, some issues make this even worse. People can expect to browse the news looking for facts and receive endless opinion. Conservative networks and outlets often unapologetically ignore the demand to at least appear unbiased, while liberal networks feign an impossible impartiality. That liberalism, too, is deadly for the marginalized. It means pretending that both sides (the oppressed and those who do the oppressing), are on equal footing. A severe neglect of history through this false equivalency makes itself plain in endless media expressions.
The current debate at hand encapsulates what Martin Luther King Jr. described in the Letter from Birmingham Jail. King said, “The Negro’s great stumbling block in the stride toward freedom is not the White Citizens Councillor or the Ku Klux Klanner but the white moderate who is more devoted to order than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice.” King was detailing the entrails of the fatal liberalism that are enshrined in the myth of unbiased journalism. No matter what, the photojournalist holding the camera is already equipped with or haunted by the methods of a white institution. For the media, to utilize this liberal colorblindness and shun inequality is to accept the assignment of complicity in whiteness.
Responsible journalists will work to provide clarity and context about underlying conditions. They will allow the people they’re around to maintain their agency and respect their privacy because their lives depend on it. They won’t treat people like objects in their quest for notoriety.
Many have pointed out that photojournalism in the 2014 uprisings in Ferguson preceded a string of deaths of activists. It’s been suggested that this could have contributed to these deaths. Imprisoned journalist Mumia Abu-Jamal stated that protests were the only reason journalists covered Mike Brown’s killing by Officer Darren Wilson. He said, “If the media was doing its job, reporting on the vicious violence launched against young Blacks the nation over; perhaps Mike Brown would be alive today.” So, Black people in precarious positions have to carry suspicion about the intentions of journalists because that’s long been the reality of surveillance. As Simone Browne writes, Blackness is “a key site through which surveillance is practiced, narrated and enacted,” going further to call it the “fact of anti-Blackness.” So it’s impossible to separate this fact when Black people draw the gaze of photojournalists in an anti-Black society.
In order to make change, these media representatives should consider the people in the protests they’re witnessing. People are pushing as hard as they can for a better world and rejecting this one we’re in now where Black people can be killed without pause. Photojournalists and others in the media that simply want to exploit the reality of the world that currently exists without thinking critically about their role will be responsible for enabling it. Those who want something different will stop, listen, and learn from those around them. One lesson they can gain from these uprisings is that sometimes you have to completely reject what’s accepted as normal in order to make things better for everyone.