Reading The Pictures is dedicated to the analysis of news photos and media images.
March 17, 2015

How We Look at the Black Man Who May or May Not Have Been Shooting at Two Officers in Ferguson

After two officers in Ferguson were struck by gunshots during a protest last weekend, a man named Jeffrey Williams was taken into custody. If Williams admitting to being the shooter, there’s considerable doubt as to whether he was a “protester,” was trying to shoot the police or had any political inclinations at all.

That being the case, it’s interesting to see how the media has been using photos, slideshows and also article headlines to suggest as much. (The one just above is from USA Today.) One would hope that editors would understand the moral and political liability of framing Williams as a protester, tainting the rallies and protests in Ferguson by suggesting the shooting of the officers was intentional, retaliatory or racially-motivated.

What’s also disconcerting is the way the St. Louis County Police Department chose to take and circulate a super-tight, super-large, slightly blurry mug shot. It has been widely published blown up as above in this CBC news post as well as many other places.  The scuffed-up Williams is being put forth as larger than life, and in our face. (And what’s with Williams’s mugshot in triplicate in the accompanying USAT video? Especially the two jarring black-and-white shots. Is this a posse? Are the black police shooters replicating?)

Also, look at the sequencing of the Reuters slideshow accompanying this article about the arrest. It starts off with that blow up of Mr. Williams. Then in the next two images, you not only see a black protester, reinforcing the idea that Williams was one also, but a protester who appears to be mixing it up with the police.

In the next scene, the man is getting into it (or maybe, the proper way to decode the stereotyping is, “getting uppity”) with a white protester.

If the Reuters edit implies Williams was not just a protester, but one “on a short trigger,” other coverage also plays on racial stereotypes.  For example, take the frame fronting the “Arrested in Ferguson” video clip in the NYT story about Williams’s arrest. If you didn’t bother to read the caption, you could easily mistake this man for Mr. Jefferson. Activating a drug meme, it features Williams’s uncle wearing a shirt full of marijuana leaves.

With the integrity of the civil rights protests at stake and the media playing loose with stereotypes about the black man as object, as looming, as angry, I’m concerned, also, about the treatment of Williams’s personal imagery. It seems a fine line between the coded treatment on the part of traditional media and the conservative blogs such as this one, already wallpapering Williams’s Facebook photos around for their gang connotations.

— Michael Shaw

(photo 1 & 2: St. Louis County Police Department. photos 3 & 4: Kate Munsch/Reuters. caption: A Ferguson police officer tries to separate a supporter of Michael Brown (R) from a Ferguson police supporter, outside the Ferguson Police Department and Municipal Court in Ferguson, Missouri, March 15, 2015. caption Michael Brown supporters confront Ferguson police supporters outside the Ferguson Police Department and Municipal Court in Ferguson, Missouri, March 15, 2015. photo 5: screenshot from video: Brent McDonald for the NY Times. caption: Friends and family of Jeffrey Williams, 20, question the circumstances surrounding his arrest in connection with the shooting of two police officers in Ferguson, Mo., last week. photo 6: Jeffrey Williams/Facebook.)

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