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How Different Media Handle Tire Nichols Arrest Footage

New York

News outlets across the country faced a dilemma on Friday night when Memphis police released video showing the brutal beating of Tire Nichols, a 29-year-old black man, following a traffic stop .

The ethical question facing newsrooms: How should they balance the need for public transparency while exercising caution in disseminating disturbing images showing acts of violence that would ultimately lead to murder charges against five policemen.

On Friday night, major television news stations chose to air the violent footage of the encounter which sparked anger and rocked the city of Memphis, with news anchors warning their audiences of the graphic nature of the footage they were about to see.

“It’s not going to be easy for anyone,” CNN anchor Erin Burnett said before releasing the footage to the network’s audience. “Like we said, it’s graphic and brutal and you have to know that if you choose to watch it.”

But Burnett stressed that CNN believes it is a matter of “great public importance” to the world.

In addition to broadcasting the footage, news anchors described in plain terms to viewers what the video showed. Sometimes the reporters got emotional. NBC News reporter Antonia Hylton, for example, broke down live on air to cover the story.

“Sorry, I’ve been covering this all day and thought I could go all day without getting emotional about it,” Hylton said.

The footage, which drew comparisons to the infamous video that captured Rodney King’s gruesome beating in 1991, was shown on all three major broadcast networks, in addition to CNN, MSNBC and Fox News.

Margaret Sullivan, a columnist for the Guardian and Egan Visiting Professor at Duke University’s DeWitt Wallace Center for Media and Democracy, told CNN the media should be careful when making coverage decisions.

“Wherever possible, the news media should give people the opportunity to see at least parts of it and give them the option not to see it – or parents and guardians to hide it from children if they deem it appropriate,” Sullivan said.

Sullivan added, “I would prefer to show the public what happened – of course with appropriate disclaimers about its graphic nature and possibly with limited editing. You can’t hold that back though; it is a matter of public interest and an important part of police accountability. Consider Darnella Frazier’s groundbreaking documentation of the murder of George Floyd.

As a general rule, news agencies are cautious about releasing such footage and only do so when they are extremely newsworthy. In such cases, it is often decided to air the graphic footage uncensored for a limited time, before later airing more limited clips of the incident.

Decisions by news agencies to subsequently limit rebroadcasting of graphic footage are usually made for a variety of reasons, including to avoid re-traumatizing victims’ families by continually seeing the tape of their loved ones’ final moments.

Bill Grueskin, a renowned professor at the Columbia Journalism School, told CNN that when deciding whether to run graphic footage like Nichols’ video, news outlets need to consider whether it’s newsworthy and whether it has properly prepared their audience to see the images.

Just hours before the Nichols footage was released, a graphic video capturing the grisly attack on Paul Pelosi, the husband of former House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, was also made public. On Fox News, the footage aired without warning to viewers, prompting host Harris Faulkner to later apologize to the network audience.

“We had no idea what it was going to look like and it should have had a warning and a graphic warning before showing it and then on screen,” Faulkner said.

Grueskin added that, when evaluating the release of footage, producers may decide to “pixelate portions of the video” for other reasons, such as “hiding the identity of a child victim to avoid too gruesome details that add nothing meaningful to the public’s understanding of the incident.

Online, major news outlets, such as CNN, The New York Times and The Washington Post, also chose to publish the video. Content warnings were applied to emphasize to the public that the images were graphic in nature.

YouTube and Meta, the parent company of Facebook and Instagram, have allowed the video showing Nichols’ death to be uploaded to their platforms, citing the timeliness of the footage. But both companies have restrictions in place to ensure that the public is aware of its graphic content.

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