Resources and discussion for parents, teachers and young people navigating the evolving landscape of the digital world.

Monday, July 22, 2013

This Is Not Trayvon Martin

This is not a picture of Trayvon Martin who was shot and killed by George Zimmerman on February 26th, 2012:
An image of the rapper Game, not Trayvon Martin
Neither is this:
An image reported to be of a different person also named Trayvon Martin,

Both photographs have been used in countless blogs, status updates, chain emails and tweets as evidence that the 17-year old was complicit in his own death and much more sinister and threatening than his portrayal in the "liberal media." The fact that a 17-year old black kid in a hoodie is considered even remotely sinister is clear evidence that we are not in a "post-racial" America, but that's a discussion for another time. I want to talk about the power of images and the responsibility we share in communicating accurate, truthful and ethical information. 

It took me exactly 30 seconds, using an article on, to determine that the images I saw all over Facebook, some blogs and other media sources, were not actually of Trayvon.  Also not true is the assertion that the most frequently used image of Trayvon is five years old. That image was only taken six months before his death, prior to the beginning of the 2011/2012 school year.  

So, what's the big deal?

Images are powerful. They convey intense emotions and some of the most compelling have become symbols of major events in our history. A man standing alone in front of a tank? Tiananmen Square. A young boy standing in front of his family saluting a casket? The funeral of President John F. Kennedy. A woman, dust blown and haggard, sitting with her cowering children? The dust bowl and Great Depression. Images really are worth a thousand words. It's because of their power that their misuse is irresponsible, and when we re-post, share and forward images we haven't taken the time to consider with a critical eye, we are complicit in this irresponsibility.

It's true that posted a correction to the article that first shared false photos of Trayvon Martin, but the damage was already done. Those looking for a reason to fault Trayvon in his own death, or to promote the opinion that George Zimmerman acted in self defense, latched on to the photos as proof that Trayvon was dangerous. They shared them on Facebook and forwarded the images in emails. They 'liked' posts and photoshopped comparisons between Mr. Zimmerman and a supposedly older Mr. Martin. The people that used these inaccurate images of Trayvon Martin as evidence, contributed negatively to an already heated national debate.

Yes, this is an extreme example, but in the world of social media, posting inaccurate, extreme, or unethical images is commonplace. Images are used for bullying (drama, general meanness, etc.); they are used to generate 'likes' (like this is if you care about ______, scroll down if you are a jerk);  they are re-posted without permission, sometimes creating conflict even when the intention is benign  (Hey, look at this picture I posted of your awkward phase in middle school!). You can find an image of almost anything using a Google image search and then that image can be downloaded, shared, modified, re-shared, tweeted, posted, emailed and more. Should you like and re-post an image of a soldier tearfully reuniting with her family?  It depends, and we should take a moment to consider our intent, the impact on others (did the family want the photo shared in the first place?), and whether the image is of what we actually think it is.

There are many ethical issues to consider when it comes to images, and Holly and I have had some lively discussions with our students about some of them. Young people wonder if and when they should be asking permission to post photos of their friends. They think about what an image says about their values and character. While working on documentary-style projects, they've been asked to use a critical eye when deciding whether images should be used purely for shock value - a consideration I wish both our mainstream media and everyday social networking users would devote some time towards.

So, what do we do about it?

Step 1: Use a critical eye, even if it was posted by your very, very best friend/sibling/parent. If it seems shocking or too good to be true, do a little fact-checking before you "like" it. and are helpful, but a simple Google search will usually root out controversy and almost-truths. I'll also add that with the abundance of random pages now on Facebook, if you aren't sure who the original poster was, it's a good idea to do a little investigating before you "like."

Step 2: Use experts to back you up. This is the single most important skill I hope my Middle Schoolers gain during their years of academic research. Experts come in all shapes and sizes. They're newspaper reporters and eye witnesses, they're doctors and lawyers, they're Master Gardeners (shout out to my sister, Amy McIntyre at the Idaho Statesman), they're authors of books and peer-reviewed journals and they're easier to find than you think. Before you voice your opinion, make sure the sources informing you are accurate and you've taken bias into consideration.

Step 3: Talk about it. Your teen "liked" an image on Facebook that makes you uncomfortable? Discuss it. You're about to post photos from your family reunion? Ask your family (and kids) permission before you do and tell them why you're asking. You just listened to pundits talk about photos of Trayvon Martin again? Start a conversation about what images do and don't tell us about people.

Perhaps if enough of us take these steps, we'll slow the spread of misinformation, or at least help build good habits for ourselves and our families so that a critical eye can become the first defense against bias and propaganda.