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A Single Image of Gun Violence Could Help Change Minds

At a judges’ dinner this week for the Livingston Awards, aimed to honor the work of journalists under 35 years old, the older ink-stained wretches like myself talked about a range of things that were impacting the media business. That included the usual topics, like online misinformation. (In fact, the national award went to an astonishing series about that toxic and growing phenomena, including a family torn asunder by conspiracy theories, by Jose A. Del Real at The Washington Post.) Also on the docket, as always, the question of how to restore the American public’s trust in the reporters and the institutions they work for.

“Fat chance,” has often been my typical response over the past few dinners, given the fractured landscape riven by all kinds of intractable economic problems, some of which are clearly due to tech. While my cynicism is always solved after getting to read the amazing journalism from the unquestionably talented coterie of Livingston applicants, it’s clear that changes are still wending their way through the ecosystem and it remains unclear when it is going to settle down. What will work — TikTok News? Metaverse broadcasting? — is still anyone’s guess.

That’s why my ears pricked up when the discussion moved to gun control and the critical debate over the use of visuals to cover the carnage of tragic events like what happened in Uvalde, Texas. Specifically, was it finally time to make it a regular practice to publish the grisly photos that show the true impact of gun violence? In the case of the murder of 19 children and their teachers, is it appropriate to show what someone killed by an AR-15-style rifle looks like? As has been widely reported, such a weapon can and usually does “vaporize” its victims’ bodies, erasing their humanity as it eviscerates their lives.

In newsrooms there’s been a longstanding rule not to show such grisly images, in the interest of protecting both the victims and the audience, who presumably would not be able to handle such things. Taste and decency are often used as the justification for not publishing.

Of course, visuals can be extremely effective when used judiciously. Think about the young Vietnamese girl running naked after being hit with napalm (who, 50 years later, recently wrote about the experience in The Times) or the migrant child on the beach in Turkey who was drowned trying to escape the war in Syria or, more recently, Lynsey Addario’s devastating photos of the deaths of Ukrainian civilians.

Perhaps the most impactful is the open-casket photo of Emmett Till, the 14-year-old brutally beaten and shot to death in Mississippi by two white men in 1955, that helped spur the civil rights movement. His mother, Mamie, insisted people also witness what happened: “Let the world see what I’ve seen.”

Today, of course, we are inundated with many photos, videos and memes, which are often entertaining, but just as often are poignant or disturbing. While videos of attacks on Black men by police officers have opened people’s eyes to the abuse of power, living photos of the murdered children in the Sandy Hook mass shooting were used across social media sites by hoax groups to push their nefarious conspiracy theories. It’s obviously complicated, and perhaps intractable.

But when it comes to gun violence, especially against children, it is easy to see why such images’ use is far less prevalent. Many worry that photos released online could extend the horror further, even if families agree to allow their use. There is no question that once such a thing becomes widespread, the ability to mutate it into something awful would grow exponentially. And once publicized there’s no taking those images back, they are out there forever. Still, some argue that politicians deciding about access to guns ought to see the weapons’ brutal impact.

And there’s also the question of how difficult it is to even obtain such photos, since they come from crime scenes. The former editor of The Rocky Mountain News discussed this in a recent Atlantic piece about a photo it published of a dead student at the time of the Columbine massacre there.

But the devastation of gun violence, which has clearly been made worse by online disinformation, requires a new attitude.

So, I have a different proposal that I think would be more impactful, if done in a controlled manner. With the permission of the close relatives only, one single still image (video seems far too ghoulish) could be used by dozens of legitimate media organizations in a simultaneous cooperative effort to depict the hard truth of these weapons of mass destruction. Think about it, it would be unavoidable and everywhere, so people could not look away. And it could be done in every mass attack.

I completely understand the reticence. But it’s time to stop protecting the populace — a majority of which supports reasonable gun reform — from what the price of owning weapons looks like and to force public officials to defend their lack of action in light of evidence that needs to be seen.

One of the great tragedies of the internet — which once held the promise of allowing the whole world to be available with a click — is that people now see what they believe rather than believe what they see.

It’s long past time to open their digital eyes.

4 Questions

Brooke Hammerling is a communications strategist and writer and podcaster of Pop Culture Mondays (and my go-to source for TikTok questions). I’ve edited her answers.

Most people feel the use of social media, especially TikTok, had a big impact on the Johnny Depp/Amber Heard trial itself. Do agree?

Without question TikTok played a major role. From the very beginning of the trial, you started seeing TikToks created in support of Johnny Depp with hashtags like #justiceforjohnnydepp, yet virtually none were in support of Amber Heard. And once creators started to see the viral success some of the pro-Depp TikToks were getting, those TikToks multiplied and virtually every other TikTok on people’s “for you page” became a pro-Depp video. We also began to see anti-Heard TikToks — as well as the players in the trial (the lawyers, witnesses, etc.) take on their own viral fame. For Heard, her witnesses were mocked and scrutinized, while those for Depp — whether it was the man giving his testimony from his car while vaping, or former girlfriend Kate Moss — became celebrated. And maybe only second to Depp himself, TikTok began having a collective crush on Depp’s attorneys, who became celebrities as a result.

The crowds grew and grew outside the courthouse, all in support of Depp, many arriving as a result of what they saw unfolding on TikTok. And because this was a civil trial and not a criminal one, the jury was not sequestered. While the jury was told not to look at the news or social media or discuss the case, it is hard to imagine that some of it did not break through. TikTok was so overwhelmingly for Depp that after the trial, an official Johnny Depp TikTok account appeared and posted a triumphant victory video thanking all his TikTok fans who supported him.

The Jan. 6 hearings are unfolding on prime-time TV. The problem is, fewer watch prime-time TV than in the past. What should the social media strategy be for the committee?

I live and breathe media and pop culture and yet I had no idea the hearings were airing on prime time. I find most of my news now on social media and perhaps social media posts will drive some to tune in, but many don’t even have access to live TV and just stream everything. So, as for the committee, it needs to have a strong and nimble social media team who know how to take quick moments and get them out in ways that capture people’s attention.

The key is speed and creativity in terms of what will capture people’s attention and then spread. TikTok is built for viral moments. This is partly a result of features that are built into the platform that allow creators to duet or stitch together videos or add their own commentary. If the committee is just using TikTok as another way to broadcast the hearings without paying attention to the nuances of the platform, this will not capture the attention of the community they are going after.

It’s hard to imagine Representative Liz Cheney doing a TikTok, so who should she and others look to for effective digital communication?

I have yet to see a politician use TikTok in a way that is not cringeworthy, to be honest. This could perhaps be because the inherent nature of TikTok is authenticity and creativity — neither of which comes to mind when thinking about politics and politicians. The White House did a great job in bringing influencers in to get the vaccine message out and, even though that in and of itself became something to make fun of on programs like “Saturday Night Live,” it was impactful and got the younger generation engaged. The TikTok generation does not look to the politicians for leadership or inspiration or influence. They look to celebrities (those that are able to speak the “TikTok language”), and to other creators and influencers, for better or worse. That’s not to say this generation doesn’t care about the country — more and more activism is coming out through the social channels and protests are organized online and offline through these channels. Politicians like Liz Cheney should bring people on board who understand what resonates with the next generation and not try to manufacture something to appear organic or authentic.

Back to the Depp-Heard trial: What will be the lasting impact to using these tools to attack and destroy an opponent?

There are positives and negatives to all of this. The virality of TikTok is unlike anything we’ve ever seen before. Whether it is a celebrity trial or a college kid dating multiple women at the same time, the world becomes spectators to it and addicted to it. In many cases, it comes hard and fast and then dissipates, but the damage is done. That may seem just fine when the person that being destroyed has been proven to have done something terrible — whether it’s video of an adult throwing a smoothie at a teen and calling her vulgar names, or someone accosting their Uber driver. But in some cases, the punishment does not meet the crime. People are saying the Depp-Heard trial marks a turning point of the #metoo movement, or the end of it even. But clearly, we have entered a new era and that is the collective mob of social media. And while Heard was not an innocent participant in this marriage, which was proven by multiple audio recordings, the attacks on her from the public took a different turn. Her career options now seem limited, while social media culture is celebrating a man who was not an innocent participant by any means, and yet his career looks far brighter.

Lovely & Loathsome

Lovely: I could not agree less with Liz Cheney, the Republican Wyoming congresswoman, on any one of a dozen policy issues, but she did manage — as Brooke noted above that politicians like her must — to come across as genuine and compelling in the television broadcast Thursday night of the congressional committee investigating the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol. Her speech laying out the crimes that took place that day also seemed to provide the bulk of the viral online videos, save for Trump adviser and son-in-law Jared Kushner talking about the White House counsel “whining” in the most niminy-piminy tone. In particular, the part about members of her own party dishonoring themselves for remaining silent was a ubiquitous soundbite. We’ll see if it ultimately makes a difference, but it was a good start.

Loathsome: The tweet from the official account of the G.O.P. House judiciary committee proclaiming “All. Old. News.” in response to the first night of hearings. That was about as bad as it gets from a group of people paid for by the American public. While individual members, like ranking member Representative Jim Jordan of Ohio, certainly can, should and did use Twitter to broadcast their own partisan point of view, that tweet from the committee was among its most cloddish of the evening, since it seemed to indicate what was said was true. It also invited endless dunking, like mine own: “All. Bad. News.” If you want to succeed at trolling about insurrection, Jim, try harder.

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