Tuesday night update: The city of Chicago released the Laquan McDonald video late Tuesday. Local television stations aired excerpts on their evening newscasts.
On Wednesday the city of Chicago will release a squad car dashcam video showing the shooting death of 17-year-old Laquan McDonald in October 2014.
It’s been described by people who have seen it as shocking, horrific and potentially explosive, documenting a white Chicago police officer shooting the African-American teenager 16 times — “the rounds hitting McDonald in the back, the legs, arms, neck and head, the bullets making the body jump again and again,” according to Chicago Tribune columnist John Kass.
Should Chicago television stations air the video? It’s a question being debated in newsrooms across the city, and it’s not an easy one.
There is no doubt the video is newsworthy and that, according to a Cook County Circuit Court judge’s ruling, the public has a right to see it. For the news media to withhold it would be tantamount to abetting the city's cover-up of the police action for the last 13 months.
But is airing it the responsible thing to do? Should broadcasters consider the impact it will have on their viewers? Showing an actual murder represents a line of depravity seldom crossed by TV news — even by today's lax standards. In this case, the consequences could traumatize some citizens and, as some fear, lead to violent unrest.
“It is a decision that will not be taken lightly, but at this point I cannot answer because we have not seen the video,” Jennifer Lyons, news director of Tribune Media WGN-Channel 9 and CLTV, said Tuesday.
Frank Whittaker, station manager and vice president of news at NBC-owned WMAQ-Channel 5, said he too had not yet seen it, adding: “Once the video is released, we will determine what’s appropriate to show on air and online.”
Other news executives and broadcast journalists I contacted asked not to be quoted but also expressed uncertainty about what their news organizations will do.
Most stations, I suspect, will air a few moments of the video and freeze it before the first shot, and then direct viewers to their websites to watch the video in its entirety, if they choose to do so.
It’s worth noting that Wednesday marks not only the eve of the Thanksgiving holiday but the final night of the November sweeps — a crucial audience-measurement period for the TV news business. Will responsibility win out over ratings? Either way, we’ll be watching.