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April 16, 2021, 7:49 a.m.
Reporting & Production

Block Club Chicago offered two versions of the same breaking news story — with and without a horrifying video

Readers told the nonprofit local newsroom that they appreciated the option to read an article omitting graphic video and images of 13-year-old Adam Toledo’s death.

Body camera footage showing a Chicago police officer fatally shooting 13-year-old Adam Toledo was released on Thursday. Jen Sabella, co-founder and director of strategy of the local nonprofit newsroom Block Club Chicago, watched the video, which shows the boy with his hands up before being shot, and felt sick to her stomach.

As a journalist, she felt that she had to watch the footage. But did the public need to see its graphic contents in order to be properly informed?

Sabella didn’t think so. She floated the idea of making a second version of the story that would describe — but not embed or screenshot — the footage. The reporters and editors working on the story agreed, and Block Club Chicago published two articles: one with the graphic video and a second, video-free version.

The newsroom flagged the different versions on Twitter, putting “NO VIDEO” in the headline and using an image taken by photographer Colin Boyle at a memorial for Toldeo instead of a screenshot from the graphic video.

“It is deeply traumatic to watch these things, and after a really, really hard year, I think people need an option to not see that,” Sabella said.

There have long been newsroom debates over whether certain violent or graphic images are too disturbing to publish or too important to ignore. Between widespread smart phone usage in the general public and body cameras in law enforcement, editors are being asked to weigh an image or video’s newsworthiness against its ability to distress and traumatize an audience more often than ever.

The pair of stories about Toledo’s death marks the first time Block Club Chicago has made an alternate version of a breaking news story to give readers the option of avoiding distressing content. A few hours after the stories were published on Thursday, the version with the graphic video had more page views (182,000 compared to 50,000 page views on the non-video version) but traffic to the non-video version was climbing as it was shared widely on social media.

On Twitter, there were dozens of positive responses.

Sabella said the idea wasn’t inspired by another newsroom, but by the despair she has seen following other police violence. (On-duty officers have shot and killed more than 990 people in the past year.)

“I hadn’t seen this elsewhere, but have seen people in recent weeks — with all the police shootings across the country — express exhaustion, devastation and a sense of tremendous loss,” she said. “Being aware of that, and frankly feeling very down about the state of the world myself, it seemed like the right thing to do.”

Block Club Chicago is reader-supported, with nearly 70% of its budget coming directly from readers through memberships that start at $59/year and tax-deductible donations. Sabella said the newsroom’s “top priority” is serving the communities that they cover and that, given the response to their approach to their coverage of the Adam Toledo shooting, they’ll “continue to do this moving forward as well.”

“When we hear from readers that they liked this option (which we have), we take that to heart. We in the media don’t always get it right, and especially when it comes to covering policing, have caused a lot of harm,” Sabella said. “The whole Block Club team is passionate about telling the stories of Chicago — the good and the bad — without causing further harm to communities that have been misrepresented in the media for decades.”

“We are still learning and will keep trying to get it right,” she added.


POSTED     April 16, 2021, 7:49 a.m.
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