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Last Friday and Saturday night I made the mistake of going to bed with the television on and set to MSNBC, as I do every night because I’m a journalist and a news junkie.  

Around 6 a.m. on Saturday, and again on Sunday morning, I was jarred awake by the sound of cops breathing hard, yelling, cussing and beating the 29-year-old photographer and skateboarder Tyre Nichols, who later died of his injuries.  

I used the bluish glow of the TV screen to guide my frantic search for the remote control which had gotten swallowed by the sheets. Even in my early morning haze, I knew the urgency of turning off the tube as quickly as possible to protect my sensory receptors and deep-brain emotional circuits from being intentionally sieged and assaulted by the corporate media’s cyclic deluge of emotional violence and Black death packaged as entertainment.

Sadly, I was not surprised that this awful footage of yet another public killing of a Black man was being aired on loop for two days straight after witnessing more than a week’s worth of an uncomfortable media-wide countdown” to the release of the video by the Memphis Police Department.  

CNN, Channel 7 News Boston, New York Daily News, Axios and scores of other outlets ran headlines that blazed: “You’re going to see acts that defy humanity.”

The New York Post and The Guardian headlines promised: “Tyre Nichols video worse than Rodney King.”

The public was given blow-by-blow updates on the day and time of the video’s release.

“Tyre Nichols beating video to be released Friday,” announced Fox 4 News Dallas-Fort Worth.  “At some point tonight, the city of Memphis is expected to release video of the confrontation that led to Tyre, Nichols’ death,” said The Memphis Commercial Appeal.

The media also hyped expectations of a violent response to the video. An ABC affiliate warned “Cities prepare for emotions running high before video of Tyre Nichols’ beating is released.” A New York Times headline noted: “Release of police video is timed with public reaction in mind.” Local outlets in Chicago, Atlanta, DC and beyond reported that law enforcement officials were prepped for violence ahead of the video release. Under a headline in Yahoo News, “As video’s release nears, here’s what to expect in Memphis today, there was a list of the city’s preparations which included cancelling all after-school activities, local universities switching to online classes and restaurants shutting down.

In a piece on Medium titled “The video of Tyre Nichols’ death didn’t need a countdown,” Michael Arceneaux wrote, “I was so uncomfortable with the countdown-to-premiere-like packaging from the media about Tyre Nichols’ killing. Not only because it seemed to help law enforcement and politicians sell their narrative to the public, there was a level of desensitization that only further dehumanized Tyre.”

Media airing of the video was treated like a movie premiere, said Emerald Garner, the daughter of Eric Garner who was choked to death by a New York City police officer on camera in the summer of 2014. “The fact that we waited for this video to be released like it was an exclusive movie that needed to be premiered on a certain day, it really boils my blood,” Garner said. “Tonight was a direct show of just how they do things. You held it like it was a premiere of a movie that needed to be watched by the world — a public lynching.”

A public lynching that needed to be watched by the world.

Emerald Garner was spot on. But even in today’s 24-hour news cycle, this confluence of “headline stress and consumption of racial killings is not new.  There’s a long historical precedent of media outlets sensationalizing and playing up murders of Black people for public consumption.


Consider these early 20th-century headlines:



New Orleans States, New Orleans, La., June 26, 1919

“FIXED FOR A BARBECUE; Preparations to Roast Jim Buchanan, Negro Murderer. Had the Mob Secured Him at Nacogdoches This was to Have Been the Programme”

– The Southern Mercury, Dallas, Texas, Oct. 16, 1902



The Pensacola Journal, Pensacola, Fla., June 8, 1909

There’s a direct correlation between these historical headlines and the way modern-day news outlets cover the public murders of Black people.

This correlation is made heartbreakingly clear in “Printing Hate,” a yearlong project in which students working with the Howard Center for Investigative Journalism at the University of Maryland, examined the scope, depth and breadth of newspaper coverage of hundreds of those public-spectacle lynchings during the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

“Printing Hate” looked into the cumulative impact of how news headlines and editorials “incited racist terror and falsely accused Black people of crimes,” according to

The series uncovers the widespread practice of publishing headlines that accelerated lynchings and massacres. Those included newspapers announcing, Negro uprisings, publishing uncorroborated stories of Black men accused of assaulting white women, and printing false allegations of arson and vagrancy — all in an attempt to justify racist terror inflicted on Black people.

News headlines hyped the violence of white lynch mobs, while articles detailed the lynchings in graphic detail. It was common for white journalists to report from the sidelines as Black adults and children were tortured, mutilated, hanged and burned alive. The papers often ran photos of white spectators posing against the backdrop of these atrocities.

Just like the countdown to the Memphis video, these news reports routinely announced the time, date, and place of the planned brutality. Local communities shut down businesses, let schoolchildren out early so they could watch, and put Black communities under surveillance to prevent any kind of resistance. Similar to the lurid never-ending video loops we see today, those white reporters detailed the horrific wounds inflicted, with blow-by-blow descriptions of the tortures, as though they were writing about a sporting event.

It was common for newspapers to feature the news story advocating lynchings on the front page along with sports scores, weather reports, beauty contest winners and other news of the day.

In other words, these racist atrocities were considered business as usual.

But those reporters weren’t being good journalists. They focused on sensationalizing the suffering of Black victims, but rarely bothered to identify the white people in the photos, or to interview law enforcement officials who allowed these attacks in the first place.

The “Printing Hate” project showed us longtime patterns of news spotlighting horrific violence to shape American perceptions and responses. That early “news” coverage clearly laid the foundation for the ways that many of today’s media outlets promote, and push content guaranteed to compound Black trauma by gloating over our suffering and serving it up for mass consumption.

And while newspapers could be read and then discarded by daily readers, current video footage lives forever on the Internet, a click away from re-traumatizing a people who never get a break from the nonstop trauma triggering that takes such a heavy physical, mental, emotional and psychological toll on our bodies and psychology.

This pattern forces us to ask: How do these sensationalist headlines, these gory details, these lurid repetitive images impact our brains, our bodies, and our emotions?

Viewing modern-day lynchings of Black people on news channels and social media platforms is a dopamine trap that rewards the brain in much the same way as sex, food and drugs. Research shows that some brains find pleasure in watching the pain and suffering of others, including viewing Black trauma masquerading as news. Viewing this content activates their brain’s pleasure centers, making it a soothing and pleasurable experience.

But Black Americans aren’t finding these videos pleasurable because of our multigenerational racialized trauma because our bodies, minds and nervous systems have been seriously compromised from centuries of living in this racist nightmare. Consuming viral content piles on the trauma for Black Americans. Our adrenaline and cortisol levels spike, our hearts race, our blood pressure amps up, triggering toxic stress and wear and tear on our immune systems which makes it difficult for our bodies to fight off diseases and heal.

It is well documented that viewing these videos can compound race-based traumatic stress. This peer-reviewed article in The Lancet, “Police Killings and Their Spillover Effects on the Mental Health of Black Americans,” found that “each additional police killing of an unarmed Black American was associated with additional poor mental health days among Black American respondents. The largest effects on mental health occurred in the 1-2 months after exposure … Mental health impacts were not observed among white respondents.”

A 2020 Harvard study found that inner-city public school students in large, urban school districts exposed to police violence had decreased GPAs, higher emotional disturbance, and were less likely to complete high school or attend college. “These effects are driven entirely by Black and Hispanic students in response to police killings of other minorities and are largest for incidents involving unarmed individuals,” the study states.

A study published in the Journal of Black Studies, surveyed 134 college students in the United States, between the ages of 18 and 24, 77 percent of whom were Black or Latinx. This study, titled “The Only Thing New is the Cameras, A Study of U.S. College Students’ Perceptions of Police Violence on Social Media,” found that “witnessing publicized police killings of unarmed Black men (and boys) is traumatic for college students and contributes to anxiety and fear for future police encounters. Students displayed symptoms consistent with post-traumatic stress disorder (i.e., anger, sadness and fear) after viewing the videos and student’s race affected how they viewed police violence in social media.”

Despite all this research, far too many of us have a subconscious compulsion to view these reenactments of Black death on repeat because we are driven to try to understand and to use this visual evidence in a futile attempt to convince White America to believe what we say about the daily indignities of living while Black. That, too, is a trauma response.

As Bernice A. King, a lawyer, minister and the youngest child of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., tweeted, “You don’t have to watch the video of #TyreNichols being beaten by police. You don’t have to subject yourself to that trauma. It should not require another video of a Black human being dehumanized for anyone to understand that police brutality is an urgent, devastating issue.”

News outlets collude to further compound Black trauma by routinely trotting out the grieving parents of these freshly murdered young Black folks. They pimp out the parents’ unimaginable pain while asking them to command Black people who might be inspired to demonstrate and protest to “remain calm and nonviolent.”

We absorb the unrelenting emotional stress of the parents who are dragged out at press conferences to tell us to “keep calm.” They weaponize the parent’s trauma and suffering to extol us to push through the pain, to show resilience, to suppress our emotions, our trauma and especially our rage.

This is sometimes followed by media coverage of the Black funeral where they provide traumatized Black communities a stage to perform respectability for White America—giving them the catharsis and pleasure they require to preserve the racist status quo. Remember that time when President Barack Obama sang Amazing Grace (a song that was written by a slave trader) at a service for the Black victims who were killed by Dylann Roof at Mother Emanuel Church in 2015? His performance as eulogizer and forgiver-in-chief was part of a long history of Black funerals being co-opted and served up to soothe white anxieties about Black anger.  

We see the deliberate use of Black funerals as activist and political theater. The sights and sounds of Black mourning, suffering and pain are a source of pleasure for White racists and those who benefit from White privilege—a reminder that Whites are insulated and immune to the injustices, terror and violence that define the Black experience.

America’s profit-driven media machines deliberately reactivates and reinforces our old traumas, pain, and grief. The unyielding deluge of this visual media is designed to trap us into a permanent state of fear and dread, wanting us to walk around with a worldview tinged with pain, fear and suspicion to keep us stressed out, and insecure about our ability to move through daily life. It is also designed to lull us into passive, spectator-like engagement.

These viral images and videos become lodged in our nervous system, mind and body playing havoc on our psyches. This multigenerational media-driven trauma porn is designed to demoralize families and communities, to impoverish our sense of being human, lose our empathy, to disconnect from our bodies, to throw us into defense mode right down to the cellular level. It aims to imprint a fear-tinged view of the world and require us to go numb in the face of suffering, to weaponize our grief and rage against us.

This highly visible, audible, and palatable Black suffering doesn’t compel action to address or change the circumstances behind the victim’s tragic death. We already know that no matter what happens to the offending cops, there will be no substantive change in policing legislation and policies. The goal of white supremacy and its media minions is to render us powerless, to keep reminding us that they can and will keep killing us—and there’s nothing we can do to stop them.

Tyre Nichols was the father of a young son whose entire life will be defined by the video of his father’s tragic beating on permanent digital loop. He’ll grow up the child of a hashtag, a man he’ll never get to know who was murdered for absolutely no reason other than the fact that he was Black.

And the horrific attack that took his life will be on cable news and social media autoplay until another victim of tragedy replaces him. Yes, America has always loved to watch a good lynching. And the media continues to serve up Black trauma as profitable entertainment.

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