Chicago video tests newsroom handling of graphic footage

This image from Chicago Police Department body cam video shows the moment before Chicago Police officer Eric Stillman fatally shot Adam Toledo, 13, on March 29, 2021, in Chicago. (Chicago Police Department via AP)
This image from Chicago Police Department body cam video shows the moment before Chicago Police officer Eric Stillman fatally shot Adam Toledo, 13, on March 29, 2021, in Chicago. (Chicago Police Department via AP)

NEW YORK – The image that many Americans have of 13-year-old Adam Toledo is frozen in time: He is standing in an alley with his hands up as the gunshot that killed him is heard.

This week's release of Chicago body camera footage of the March 29 shooting was another test for news organizations weighing how much graphic material they should show now that video of police confrontations is becoming commonplace.

One Chicago digital site offered its subscribers a choice to read the story with or without the video.

National television outlets took similar approaches. They showed jumpy body camera footage of officer Eric Stillman chasing Toledo and ordering him to drop a gun, followed by Toledo's empty hands being raised. The video is stopped at the moment of the fatal shot.

In some depictions, like on CNN's “Anderson Cooper 360,” a second video angle from a distance shows Toledo crumpling to the ground. Some outlets also aired brief scenes of Stillman trying to revive the teen.

“The news media has gotten much better at stopping the frame before someone's last moment,” said Allissa Richardson, professor at the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Southern California. “It's finally starting to sink in that we can tell these stories without the final moment of impact.”

Said “CBS This Morning” anchor Gayle King: “I don't want to see him get shot.”

Television executives recognize they have a responsibility to protect viewers from excessively disturbing footage, said Mark Whitaker, a former CNN and NBC News executive. They also recognize that most consumers, if they want to see more of the confrontation, have other options online.