The police killing of George Floyd, which was captured on video, has sparked a nationwide protest movement to reform policing and fight systemic racism in the US. The video, which shows now-former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin pinning Floyd by the neck with his knee for almost 9 minutes while Floyd and onlookers warn that he is dying, was widely disseminated on social media and prompted outrage and calls for action. It came a few weeks after the release of another widely shared video that shows the killing of Ahmaud Arbery by a white father and son who chased Arbery down in a pickup truck and shot him.
The graphic videos of both men’s deaths led to the mass social action we see today. They’ve also led to action against the people accused of killing them or otherwise contributing to their deaths. Chauvin has been charged with second-degree murder, and the three other former Minneapolis police officers present as Floyd died — J. Alexander Kueng, Thomas Lane, and Tou Thao — have been charged with aiding and abetting second-degree murder. Gregory and Travis McMichael, as well as the man who filmed the video, have also been charged with murder.
By contrast, there is no known video of the fatal police shooting in March of Breonna Taylor, a 26-year-old black woman who was sleeping in her apartment when police executed a no-knock warrant while investigating two people who did not even live in her home. Her case has received far less attention, and despite calls for the officers involved to be fired and arrested, no arrests have been made.
But these videos have also revived the debate over whether traumatizing videos and images of violence against black people should be so casually and frequently shared. These images appear and autoplay on millions of social media timelines and television screens, making them almost impossible to avoid. These are (or should be) upsetting for anyone to see. But for some communities, the impact of these images is even greater; it can create new traumas and can cause or exacerbate psychological issues. It’s also cumulative: Dozens of images and videos of black people being brutalized have been shared in recent years, and their attackers are rarely held accountable. Is whatever reason you have to share that image worth adding to that harm? Is there a way to spread awareness without adding trauma to it?
Recode spoke to four people who have studied the impact of images like those of Floyd’s and Arbery’s deaths about what you should consider if you’re thinking of sharing these images and how you can best spread awareness while minimizing harm. Their responses have been edited and condensed for clarity and brevity.
What are the merits of sharing these images?
Kia Gregory, journalist who has written about this topic
Sometimes I wonder what the advantages are. I think, on its face, it is visual documentation and, in many cases, evidence of what black people throughout the country, for generations, have been saying. And so there’s this idea that if we’re all looking at a video — in this case, let’s say George Floyd — there’s no denial of what’s happening.
Some families use it to push for police officers to be held accountable. They use it to organize and mobilize as far as police reform. So I do want to separate that. I feel like there’s a difference between the community and those who are directly impacted using or watching the videos … and the media using it for its purposes.
I think, the American public, we don’t need another video to share. We have enough. We have a whole archive of these videos. So the sharing of another one becomes an accumulated trauma as well on the public. … We have enough to be outraged to push for change to demand more and better as it relates to all the things that those videos represent.
Pam Ramsden, lecturer in psychology at the University of Bradford, who has studied the traumatic effects of violent social media images
When we post things, sometimes it’s just, “Hey, look at this, this is what’s happening.” The minority population of the United States has long known about the police brutality that has existed forever. The problem is, every time you say it, it’s denied or people can’t believe it. Now that we have the ability to film it and post it, it’s very difficult to discredit it. … None of us can dismiss the fact that there was a policeman kneeling on the neck of a black man and him saying, “I can’t breathe,” with a bystander saying, “You’re killing him.”
Allissa V. Richardson, assistant professor of journalism at USC Annenberg and author of Bearing Witness While Black: African Americans, Smartphones, and the New Protest #Journalism
In my book, Bearing Witness While Black, I write about the gift and the curse of the smartphone. It’s not a soaring love letter to the smartphone as this great liberator, and it’s not a condemnation of the smartphone, either. It has been a very complex tool in the fight for racial justice in America. The pro of using smartphone footage to advance the cause of ending police brutality is that African Americans finally have proof of things that they’ve known have happened for many, many, many decades. … It offers that proof that many Americans need that these kinds of problems still happen. You may hear people dismiss racialized claims of violence against black people as something that used to happen in the past, or we were, during the Obama era, talking a lot about living in a post-racial society. None of those things were true. … That proof is now there.
I think with George Floyd, however, we’re at a Rubicon. We’re at a place where there’s a point of no return. And people are no longer able to kind of explain away what could have happened here. And I think that’s why we see all of these different uprisings. Because this killing not only was slow — it took eight minutes to carry out — but it also captured the consciousness of a community that has been dealing with a pandemic, and disproportionately so. Many African Americans are saying, “We didn’t even get to deal with burying our loved ones from this unprecedented pandemic that ravaged black America, and now we have to deal with the knee on the neck of one of ours.” And so I think that resonated with many, many people. And in many ways, the movement had a captive audience as the world was still trying to reopen.
Kainaz Amaria, visuals editor at Vox
Visibility. First, it’s the power of seeing it for yourself. You no longer have to believe in an official or a report or an eyewitness account — you can say, “I saw it with my own eyes.”
Second, it’s the speed at which your photograph or video can travel across social media — it can be seen by citizens, celebrities, journalists, politicians, even the president. There are demonstrations of support for justice for George Floyd happening in Berlin, London, Amsterdam, and Milan. It started with one video.
When we are specifically talking about violence inflicted on black and brown communities, these videos have played a significant role in raising awareness and forcing local governments to begin a process of accountability.
What are the harms?
For black people in particular, the harm is you see yourself in the video. You see your family in the video. You think, “That could literally be me.” … Black people, by and large, we call each other brother and sister, and you see, that’s your brother you’re looking at in that video, that’s your sister. So you identify with George Floyd as a human being, as a black being in America, and you can immediately draw all the contexts into that. And you see yourself all at the same time. And then you move into other spaces, particularly white spaces, and there’s silence or questioning and confusion, not agreement … so that is also traumatizing as well. So in that regard, again, the video itself is valuable. The sharing of the video, there is a question of whether it causes more harm than good. To be honest, I don’t know at this point.
We’ve always had a syndrome called vicarious PTSD, but we’ve only attached it to people who work with victims: social workers, nurses, doctors, EMTs. I started thinking, if we’re exposed to images, and we can watch them in real time on our computers, it makes it look like we are there. Isn’t that causing harm to people? It’s the same kind of process that we have in our minds if we believe that could be us. I did five different studies, and they always came out with about 15 to 18 percent of the population that I studied could have been diagnosed with either acute stress disorder or PTSD. And it would go untreated.
So I think in a certain group of people, there will be an increase in traumatization because of what we’re seeing. And it’s not just the George Floyd murder, it’s now the police attacking peaceful protesters ... because it’s very clear in the visuals that they’re doing absolutely nothing other than protesting what’s going on. And then to watch the police trying to clear people out, shooting tear gas, battering them with batons, using helicopters, all those kinds of things are really upsetting. People are starting to think, “Whoa, wait a minute, this isn’t the America that I believed we lived in.”
I think that’s what’s going to traumatize the most people. We want to believe that the world is just and fair. And what this is doing is causing a lot of people’s worldviews to be flipped. ... [For members of black communities], I think it has made it much worse. For some people, it’s just brought the anxiety that they already had into higher levels.
Allissa V. Richardson
One of the things that I found during my research is that African Americans do something called “black witnessing.” And black witnessing is a special kind of looking that has a couple different elements. The first thing is that it almost always places the looker in the position of the victim. Many black people see themselves lying on the ground, they see a relative, someone who looks like them — it could be them. ... That’s the first element of black witnessing, the assumption of the harm. And that’s a form of trauma.
The second thing is that black witnessing has never been allowed. One of the things that could have garnered a really horrible bashing during slave times was to look a white person in the eye. You see and hear in the slave narrative all kinds of accounts of people who dare to look up while another slave was getting beaten, and then they received the beating, too, just for looking.
The third thing is that it tries to tie together with different historical threads. There’s never this idea that these beatings or killings are isolated incidents. You see that played out in the very first tweets about this on Black Twitter. They said, “They did it again. He said, just like Eric Garner, he couldn’t breathe, and he’s dead.” ... And we need that to continue to push the narrative forward that this is longstanding and harmful. However, it is incredibly traumatic for black people to play this historic reel of violence in their heads ... black people I know are not watching media anymore because of how closely they identify with the images. But I know that they’re still incredibly useful to those who are looking to educate themselves about how they can help.
Oversaturation. Our colleague Brian Resnick introduced me to a term used by psychologists called “psychic numbing.” The basic principle is that as numbers of victims increases, “our empathy, our willingness to help, reliably decreases.” What’s remarkable in his reporting is that this happens even when the number of victims increases from one to two. At this point, we can list over 50 names of black folks who have died at the hands of police in the US since Eric Garner’s death in July 2014. They are all individual stories, but since the common thread is police brutality, the details after a while begin to blur. The trauma begins to add up, which may lead to numbing and a sense of helplessness.
Do these videos do more harm than good?
The video would be worth it, maybe, if the video actually led to real conversation, if it led to transformative change. And it has — videos have enacted some level of change, which I talked about in the story. … But as it stands now ... we have video of Philando Castile, video of Alton Sterling, video of Delrawn Small. We don’t need to share any more videos.
I think that’s a hard question. I think the bottom line is that people of color have been trying to bring awareness. The Colin Kaepernick stuff, though people absolutely hated it, I think he was trying to bring change through peaceful protest, and everyone rejected it. He became a target. And I think as a direct result, other people went, “I don’t want to be a target, look what it’s done to his life. I don’t want to ruin mine. And it’s done absolutely nothing.” So I think that that’s what makes it a completely different kind of thing is, you know, you’re seeing 16-year-old people out there in peaceful protests.
Allissa V. Richardson
I am afraid that if we overexpose people to these, there will become an almost prurient interest in looking at them for the wrong reasons. In my essay in the Conversation, I write about how we don’t ask other races to prove that something horrible happened. For example, we know when mass shootings — that largely affect white people — happen. We don’t need to look for any photographs.
That’s not the case when black people die. We want all the facts. We’re like, “I need to see more footage. What happened before? What could have escalated this? I need to see this from another angle. Was there perhaps a surveillance camera that could have gotten some additional stuff? Oh, yes, there was the surveillance camera angle. Look at these other police. They really were participating. They were on George Floyd’s legs too.” For the public to consume such horrific images is unhealthy, and, quite frankly, something that we don’t do when white people die.
These are the decisions we have to make if we talk about how we achieve racial justice. This issue of humanization and allowing something to be sacred and private needs to be extended to black people and other victims of color. And so smartphone witnessing can function in a sinister fashion to take some of that dignity away if we’re not careful.
If I may, I’d like to suggest a different question here, because I think we often apply a “good versus bad” framing to complicated matters that can undermine a nuanced conversation. When it comes to graphic photographs and video of black and brown folks dying — and now I’m speaking of visuals both domestically and internationally — I’m much more interested in thinking about this question: What does it say about us as a society that we need to see this level of pain and suffering to begin to care? And the next question I’d like folks to consider is: How are we implicated in visuals that we are seeing? How have our decisions collectively brought us to this point? A photograph or video documents a moment in time; what it cannot do is give you the proper context you need to understand that moment fully.
Those questions get to the heart of what we are discussing.
How can people spread awareness while also minimizing harm?
Yolanda Banks-Reed [mother of Sahleem Tindle], told me, “I don’t just want likes and shares, I want help.” If you’re that moved by [a video], what are you going to do about the issue of racism, of police violence, police brutality, police murder? If you’re going to share it, then ask yourself, “Okay, what else can I do? I feel like I’ve spread awareness.” It doesn’t stop there. History proves that that’s not quote-unquote enough. So if you’re moved enough to share it, I would say think about, in your spaces, what can I do to bring about the change where later this year or next year I’m not sharing yet another video?
Black people are tired. And some of the work, even before now, cannot be done by the black community — particularly the people who are directly impacted by police violence. If you really want to help, and I think a lot of people do, reach out to organizations, reach out to families. Sharing the video is not enough.
Well, that would take some responsibility on their part, which I never believe many people participate in. They don’t have a tendency to think, “How’s this going to affect other people?” They’re thinking about how it affects them and wanting to share. When you feel threatened, like your mortality is being threatened, you react in defensive ways. And I think that this is a very clear cause and effect of that. People are trying to make sense of all of this. And they want people to listen, and they want some change. I think the last thing they want is violence.
Encouraging people, if they feel too stressed, to stop looking, if they can, or limiting how often they look. Cognitively, we probably don’t realize how many times we’re looking at these kinds of visual images. So what I would say is encouraging people to keep track of how many times that they’re doing this each day and cut it in half. They’ll be surprised how many times they’re looking at their phone, looking at horrible pictures of what’s going on. You just don’t realize how many times you’re picking up stuff. ... You don’t want to blame people for victimizing themselves; it’s just making them aware that the cost of viewing of negative images can be very harmful.
Allissa V. Richardson
One of the things I encourage people to do is to do some research about the actual person and make sure you can honor them in the same way we would with white victims. If you can find a flattering picture of them, or some kind of retweet from someone who knew them closely, you can use that image to amplify their humanity.
Another thing you can do is educate people about organizations that are fighting to end police brutality. So you don’t always have to show George Floyd dying to encourage your followers to participate in a fight. You can tell them, “Hey, let’s defund police, and here’s an organization that’s working to do that. Here’s an organization that’s working to support the children who may have been witnesses to this. Here’s a GoFundMe that you can use for his daughter.” Like, there are other causes that you can draw attention to. Now that we know this person has passed away, there’s still people living who need support, and that is the most useful amplification of a message.
I think these uprisings have shown there’s a multiethnic coalition out there that’s interested in stamping this out forever. And we really have to capitalize on a moment where we’re all together in this and that a lot of people are really wanting help. ... A lot of nice threads that I’ve seen on social media are saying, “This is the sheriff of your town; if there have been complaints about cops and their use of excessive force and they weren’t disciplined, get rid of the sheriff. Vote him out.” “If you don’t like that it took 10 weeks for Ahmaud Arbery’s family to get people taken into custody, then oust the DA.” “Get rid of the mayor if you’re not happy with the fact that he or she does not discipline the police chief.” So there are things that people can do that move past the point of “look at this horrible video of somebody dying.”
One way to minimize harm is to get permission from the person being filmed or photographed or from their family if you don’t know them personally or cannot speak to them. They deserve to choose whether or not their pain should be published for consumption.