A young man named Michael Brown has been killed by police officers in St. Louis, Missouri. According to eyewitness accounts, Michael was walking (unarmed) to visit his grandmother when witnesses saw an officer approach Brown and have some sort of confrontation with him. One witness states that she saw the police officer attempt to put Michael into his squad car. At some point, Michael might have attempted to flee. The officer opened fire, shooting Michael in the back as he ran.

In the time since the shooting, Michael’s community has taken to the streets in protest. One popular photograph shows Michael’s stepfather holding a sign reading “Ferguson police just executed my unarmed son!!!” Michael joins the string of unarmed black men killed by law enforcement.

Now begins the stomach-churning battle over the “worthiness” of the victim. As in the wake of the shooting of Trayvon Martin, news outlets will share photos of Michael and debate what “really happened” and who is most blameworthy. News outlets are already laying claim to the story, trying to cobble together eyewitness accounts and official statements, while social media explodes with other first-hand accounts and angry responses.

One particularly moving phenomenon is the trending Twitter hashtag #IfTheyGunnedMeDown, which has generated a collection of images of black youths in graduation gowns, military uniforms and classrooms juxtaposed with images of the same youths mugging for the camera in hoodies or pulling mean faces. The hashtag asks the question: if one of these young adults became a victim of police brutality, which images would the news outlets use to make their case? How would the media debate the victim’s “worthiness” in deciding what “really happened”?

For more on the media’s role in determining what is crime and who are the criminals (and the worthy victims), check out some of the literature on media and crime. There’s good discussion in a textbook I use, Class, Race, Gender & Crime. There are also dedicated textbooks on the topic, like Media, Crime, and Criminality, as well as numerous journal articles in topic-specific journals and general criminology journals.

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