Bearing witness in Minneapolis

“It’s been nights I stayed up apologizing and apologizing to George Floyd for not doing more and not physically interacting and not saving his life.”

    –Darnella Frazier, who at age 17 made the video of Officer Derek Chauvin choking George Floyd to death in a nine-minute vice between the officer’s knee and a sidewalk in Minneapolis.

Ms. Frazier, as a witness in the Chauvin murder trial, was describing what journalists sometimes experience as a moral hazard of their work. Reporters and photojournalists may be present when terrible things are happening. How far do they go to maintain their detachment so that they can do their jobs, to bear witness? At what point do they try to intervene, to help, or simply protect themselves from the physical or emotional trauma that radiates from violent news?

Flip Schulke, a photographer with Life magazine, faced that dilemma in 1965 when he was shooting pictures of the voting-rights protests in Selma, Alabama, in 1965. This was before the infamous bridge-crossing of “Bloody Sunday” that the whole world saw on TV. He watched as Sheriff Jim Clark’s posse of deputized bullies shoved children to the ground. He let his camera go and put himself between the white men and the young black protestors. This is reported in The Race Beat, by Gene Roberts and Hank Klibanoff.

Schulke remembered what Martin Luther King Jr. told him later, hearing about this. King said Schulke should have continued taking pictures. It was his duty. “The world doesn’t know this happened, because you didn’t photograph it,” the photographer recalled King telling him. “I’m not being cold-blooded about it,” King reportedly said, “but it is so important for you to take a picture of us getting beaten up than for you to be another person joining the fray.”

Now, just about everybody has a video camera on their cellphones and police officers have body cams. The Black experience of bad confrontations with police can now be seen, as it was on the internet around the world before sundown of May 25, 2020, in Minneapolis. That changed the world, thanks in large part to Darnella Frazier, whose sworn testimony helped convict Officer Chauvin of all three charges against him yesterday.

But besides the justice system finally seeming to work in such a case, the daily press also did its job, its duty. Even before the video had gone viral, the Minneapolis Star-Tribune’s police reporter, Libor Jany, was peeling back layers of facts. While his newsroom was mobilizing, he was tweeting his reporting. He filed his first story for the newspaper’s webpage at 3:30 a.m. the next day, a story that would be updated 115 times online before a full package of stories appeared in the newspaper on May 27.

That edition of the Star-Tribune offered clear and panoramic coverage of the incident, its social-media dimension, the emotional and historical background of other unjustified police killings, next-day fiery protests and police confrontations. All of this was done with reporters threated by a pandemic and manhandled by police in riot gear. Given the scant information available in the beginning, and the legal and political attention paid to this outbreak of news over the next year, it is remarkable how thorough and factually solid that initial coverage still stands from the first 36 hours. This was deadline reporting at its best. Let’s remember the role of the press too.

About Doug Cumming

journalism professor at W&L
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