How Chicago newsrooms decided how to handle the Laquan McDonald video

On Tuesday, in the hours before Chicago officials released video of a city police officer shooting a teenager 16 times, news directors and editors around the city were wrestling with how much of the footage they might show.

In October 2014, veteran police officer Jason Van Dyke fatally shot Laquan McDonald, 17. Police tried to withhold dash-cam footage of the shooting, rejecting numerous public-records requests, but last week a Cook County judge ordered it to be released. The ensuing days were filled with accounts from people who had seen the video about how awful it was, and not-so-subtle signals that city officials were worried about a violent response.

In the end, most of the major local media outlets aired or published extended segments of the video, which shows Van Dyke, now charged with murder, shooting McDonald repeatedly, emptying his weapon into the teen as he lay on the ground. Chicago Sun-Times columnist Mary Mitchell wrote of the “absolute horror” depicted in the grainy footage, and a Chicago Tribune editorial begins, “The video takes your breath away.”

And indeed, the emotional impact of the video is, as the Tribune editorial described it, staggering. It is even more staggering considering how police long maintained an alternative narrative of the shooting that the video undermines; how Van Dyke had 15 citizen complaints against him but was never disciplined; and how, as a Chicago Tribune investigation lays out, in four years worth of complaints against police officers, just over 4 percent were sustained.

But as staggering as it is, and as horrific as it is to watch—and as painful as it must be for McDonald’s family, who didn’t want it shown—the video was not as visually graphic as many had expected.

“It was far enough away, you weren’t seeing his face,” said Jim Kirk, editor-in-chief and publisher of the Chicago Sun-Times. “You could grasp what was happening without being right next to the body. It’s obviously horrific and graphic. But I think the closer you are to being right up there, the tougher it would be to see.”

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Before she had seen the footage, Teri Arvesu, a news director at Univision Chicago, told me that she doubted the Spanish-language station would air the entire video. Though the footage was less graphic than she anticipated, the station chose to air the video only up to the first shot.

“We just wanted to be sensitive,” Arvesu said. “You really didn’t need to see the shots when he was down on the ground to see the gravity of it.”

The station did publish the entire video online, however. “The internet has a different set of standards,” Arvesu said. “You go deliberately and click on something. You signed up for it. Sometimes on TV you don’t get to make that decision consciously.”

Mary Field, executive producer of Chicago Tonight, said the evening news show on WTTW Chicago made the same decision as Univision Chicago, opting to broadcast about 20 seconds of the video, from the time the dash-cam arrived on the scene until McDonald went down. It published the entire video online with a warning for viewers.

Though the footage was “horrific,” Field said, “I don’t think it was as visually graphic as my imagination made it out to be.

Field said the news program wants to make sure as it continues to follow the story that it does not use the video without good reason.

“We’re thinking a lot about the impactful use of the video and not using it gratuitously and what it means if you start using the death of a child as wallpaper,” she said, using broadcaster jargon for generic video that accompanies a voice-over. (While many activists applauded or fought for the video’s release, others have opposed it, with one arguing it amounts to “trauma porn.”)

Expectations about the video’s content had been stoked by city officials, who met with community leaders and signaled concern about violent protests after its release.

When the local ABC station obtained a leaked portion of the video a day before its expected release, prompting the city to scramble to get ahead of the story, the station chose to hold off airing the footage until it was officially released after a hastily called press conference. (Earlier indications had been that the city would release it late today–just before a deadline imposed by the court, and just before the Thanksgiving holiday.)

It’s impossible to say what the release of the video will lead to over time. But Alton Miller, a political communications professor at Columbia College Chicago and former press secretary to Chicago Mayor Harold Washington, said it appeared the city had been able to dampen the initial public response.

“You can see it’s all about managing expectations, creating expectations, inflating expectations when you want it to come across as less,” he said.

As it turned out, there was little violence then night after the video was released–and even the early protests were modest in scale.

“It has the makings of kindling for a powder keg,” Miller said. But at least initially, he said, “It’s almost as if the city is stupefied by what we’ve come to take for granted, the continuum of killings, the abuse.”

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Jackie Spinner is CJR’s correspondent for Illinois, Indiana, Ohio, and Wisconsin. She is an assistant journalism professor at Columbia College Chicago and a former staff writer for The Washington Post. Follow her on Twitter @jackiespinner.