A family photo of Michael Brown (top), his father, and an unidentified child, held at a protest Monday. Some media outlets first used Browns Facebook profile photo, which critics said could have been seen in a negative light.
  • AP Photo/Jeff Roberson
  • A family photo of Michael Brown (top), his father, and an unidentified child, held at a protest Monday. Some media outlets first used Brown’s Facebook profile photo, which critics said could have been seen in a negative light.

#IfTheyGunnedMeDown, which picture would they use?

That continues to be a burning question on social media.

If a police officer fatally shot an African-American or Hispanic youth, would the media show him smiling sweetly in a cap and gown? Or would they prefer to show him smoking a cig and scowling, with bulky, tattooed arms? Using the #IfTheyGunnedMeDown tag, untold numbers have posted pairs of self-portraits via Twitter and Instagram—one irreproachable, the other not necessarily.

The campaign targets the evils of stereotyping, but the question presumes the answer: of course the prejudiced mainstream media would choose the dubious photo.

The MSM is hardly a monolith, however, so there’s really no single correct response to that underlying question. Which media outlet are we talking about, and under what circumstances?

#IfTheyGunnedMeDown began trending because of the photo of Michael Brown used initially by some outlets, after the unarmed 18-year-old was shot dead by a police officer in Ferguson, Missouri, Saturday. The picture showed an unsmiling Brown in a sleeveless T-shirt, extending two fingers in a V. The fingers might be read as a peace sign, as friends said it was, or a gang sign.

A spokesperson for NBC News, one of the outlets that used the photo, said this was Brown’s own profile picture, taken from his Facebook page.

Brittney Gault, a DePaul University grad student, tweeted a photo of herself speaking at a south-side church, and another in which she’s grinning while preparing to fire a handgun at a shooting range—her father is a firearms instructor. “My dad was teaching me at the time how to shoot a revolver,” she said on NPR yesterday. “That was something new for me. So I was having fun, but at the same time it can look like I’m just a trigger-happy black girl.”

Many in the social media sphere are convinced that the MSM is bent on depicting minorities negatively. As kingterveen74 put it on Instagram: “They find that their ratings will go up if they talk about some supposed ‘punk gangster’ was shot rather then just a normal kid going to the store.”

If ratings really drove this decision, though, the practice would be the opposite. A “normal kid going to the store,” gunned down by police, is a more compelling story.

The entities that make up the MSM are not without their biases, of course. But they tend to be most captive to access—to what’s available—and to the driving hunger to beat others to the punch. The photo they prefer when news is breaking is often the first one they can get.

That doesn’t resolve the fundamental bias issues raised by #IfTheyGunnedMeDown. Gault added on NPR that photos can “contaminate” juries and public opinion. She’s right, and they do so all the time.

Criminal defendants frequently pay the price for this. It’s not just the prejudicial mug shot. When someone is charged in a case that’s drawing public attention, police will offer reporters the basic “facts,” or a prosecutor will lay them out at the bond hearing. These “facts” are one-sided: in our adversarial system, there’s no reason for authorities to acknowledge any weaknesses in their case, or any evidence on the other side. The defense lawyer isn’t in a position to challenge the official version; usually he or she has just gotten the case and knows little about it.

Reporters dutifully report the damning official version, and it quickly takes on the air of gospel. It’s not because the reporters are inherently biased in favor of the authorities; ask police or prosecutors which way they think the media leans. Reporters are eager to do stories on wrongful accusations or wrongful convictions. Their bias is toward whatever facts or photos are easily attainable, and at the beginning of a criminal case, what’s easily attainable almost always tilts against the accused.

I realize Brown was a victim and not a defendant—but we should be concerned about the prejudicial treatment of victims and defendants alike.

That prejudicial treatment may not be as calculated as the #IfTheyGunnedMeDown question suggests. Unfortunately, it also may be harder to eliminate. The best antidote to media bias and stereotyping is for the media to probe more deeply from the beginning, and to be in less of a rush to publish. We’re not exactly moving in that direction.