Visualizing Injustice or Reifying Racism? Images in the Digital Media Coverage of the Killing of Michael Brown

Michelle S. Phelps, Amber M. Hamilton

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

6 Scopus citations


The explosion of Black Lives Matter protests in the mid-2010s rendered visible state violence against Black Americans, producing a barrage of images and videos of lethal police violence and the protests that followed. These images served as a powerful site of contestation about the meaning of race and racism in the United States for both movement supporters and critics. We examine these dynamics through the lens of media coverage of the pivotal 2014 killing of Michael Brown by police officer Darren Wilson and the protests that followed in Ferguson, MO. Drawing from literatures on race, visuality, and media studies, we explore how media outlets pictured the killing of Michael Brown and the protests in Ferguson, either resisting or reproducing the white racial frame through the selection of images in their coverage. We analyze the images in digital media coverage across nine ideologically diverse media outlets in the month after Brown’s death and the month following the non-indictment of Officer Wilson. Across 1,303 articles, we show that most sites did not center images of violence against Brown, preferring instead images of Brown’s life and, more commonly, protesters and law enforcement. While we found few consistent differences in image categories preferred across outlets’ ideological profiles, the specific content and tone of these images starkly diverged, with liberal sites choosing humanizing images of Brown and protesters and conservative sites favoring criminalizing images. We conclude by considering the role media images play in mediating perceptions of race and racism.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)160-175
Number of pages16
JournalSociology of Race and Ethnicity
Issue number1
StatePublished - Jan 2022

Bibliographical note

Funding Information:
For excellent research assistance, we thank De Andre’ T. Beadle, Yahsmene Butler, Emma Dozier, and Grace Mathre. Alex Vitale and attendees at the 2019 Law and Society Association meeting provided productive suggestions and critiques on an earlier draft. Thanks also to Michael Beckstrand for his technical assistance with data collection and analysis tools and Emma Frankham for skillful editing. This article developed out of an earlier paper that traced episodes of racial violence through U.S. history. The authors thank Jennifer Carlson for her collaboration on that project and Joshua Page, Nicole Gonzalez Van Cleve, Susan Bibler Coutin, Alejandro Baer, Eric Goldfischer, Valerie Belair-Gagnon, and Nikki Jones for their productive comments.

Publisher Copyright:
© American Sociological Association 2021.


  • Black Lives Matter
  • media
  • police
  • violence
  • visuality


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