News organizations across the country faced a dilemma Friday evening when Memphis police released video showing the brutal police beating of Tyre 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 also exercising caution in airing disturbing footage that captured acts of violence that would ultimately lead to murder charges against five police officers?
On Friday evening, major television news networks opted to air the violent footage of the encounter that has sparked an outpouring of anger and roiled the city of Memphis, with news anchors warning their audiences about the graphic nature of the footage they were about to see.
“This will not be easy for anyone,” CNN anchor Erin Burnett said before playing the footage for the network’s audience. “As we have said, it is graphic and brutal and you should know that if you choose to watch it.”
But, Burnett stressed that CNN felt it was a matter of “great public importance” for the world to see.
In addition to airing the footage, news anchors described in clear-eyed terms to viewers what the video showed. At times, journalists grew emotional. NBC News reporter Antonia Hylton, for instance, broke down live on air covering the story.
“Sorry, I have been covering this all day and I thought I could get through the whole day without getting emotional about it,” Hylton said.
The footage, which drew comparisons to the infamous video that captured the gruesome beating of Rodney King in 1991, aired across the big three broadcast networks, in addition to CNN, MSNBC, and Fox News.
Margaret Sullivan, a columnist for the Guardian and the Egan Visiting Professor at Duke University’s DeWitt Wallace Center for Media and Democracy, told CNN that news outlets must be prudent while making decisions on coverage.
“To the extent possible, the news media should give people the opportunity to see at least portions of it and give them the opportunity not to see it — or for parents and guardians to withhold it from children if they deem appropriate,” Sullivan said.
Sullivan added, “I would err on the side of showing the public what happened — of course with due warnings about its graphic nature and possibly with limited editing. You cannot withhold this though; it’s a matter of great public interest and an important part of holding police accountable. Think of Darnella Frazier’s world-changing documentation of George Floyd’s murder.”
Typically, news organizations are cautious about running such footage and only do so when it is extremely newsworthy. In such cases, often a decision is made to run the graphic footage in an uncensored manner for a limited time, before later airing more limited clips of the incident.
Decisions by news organizations to later limit the re-airing of graphic footage are generally made for a variety of reasons, including to avoid retraumatizing the families of victims by continually seeing tape of their loved ones’ final moments.
Bill Grueskin, a renowned professor at the Columbia Journalism School, told CNN that when deciding whether to air graphic footage like the Nichols video, news organizations need to determine whether it is newsworthy and whether they have adequately prepared their audiences to see the footage.
Just hours before the release of the Nichols footage, graphic video capturing the grisly attack on Paul Pelosi, the husband of former House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, was also released to the public. On Fox News, the footage aired without a warning to viewers, prompting host Harris Faulkner to later apologize to the network’s audience.
“We had no idea what that was going to look like and that should have had a warning and a graphic warning before we showed it and then on screen,” Faulkner said.
Grueskin added that, when evaluating whether to air the footage, producers might decide to “pixelate parts of the video” for other reasons, such as “hiding the identity of a child victim to avoiding overly gruesome details that don’t add anything meaningful to the public’s understanding of the incident.”
Online, major news organizations, such as CNN, The New York Times, and The Washington Post, also opted to publish the video. Content warnings were applied stressing to audiences that the footage was graphic in nature.
YouTube and Meta, the parent company of Facebook and Instagram, allowed for the video showing Nichols’ death to be uploaded to their platforms, citing the newsworthiness of the footage. But both companies implemented restrictions to ensure that audiences were warned about its graphic content.