The live, on-air murder of a reporter and camera operator from WDBJ-TV in Roanoke, Virginia, as well as the wounding of the woman they were interviewing, was a horrible tragedy. We feel it all the more because it was caught on video.
For the media, access to that video comes with great responsibility.
So much of life is a balance — a balance between work and home, study and play, sleep and wake. The media must be a place of balance, too; it not only needs to convey the news, but it also needs to do it responsibly and respectfully, for the right reasons and in the right manner.
Unfortunately, many media outlets failed to deal with the video in this way, as some chose to display the whole video online.
We’re part of the media, and we’re not arguing for censorship — simply responsibility and respect, rather than shameless sensationalism.
Reporter Alison Parker and camera operator Adam Ward were gunned down by former co-worker Vester Lee Flanagan II (whose on-air name was Bryce Williams) while interviewing Vicki Gardner, a member of the local chamber of commerce. The three were shot during a live broadcast which quickly cut back to a shocked news anchor. Parker and Ward died on the scene, and Gardner suffered a gunshot wound to the back but is now recovering.
Viewers of the broadcast would have seen Parker scramble as shots were fired. They would have seen the camera’s point of view shift as Ward fell to the ground.
A few moments are often all a news outlet has to make decisions about how to handle breaking news. The tragedy in Virginia forced news outlets to decide whether or not to post clips from the broadcast showing the last moments of two people’s lives, and probably the most terrifying moment in the life of a third.
The prospect of showing these moments again should have been handled with more tact from the media.
A Second, More Sensational Video
The shooter eventually posted his own video of the tragedy on social media, which showed a different perspective of the situation. It was immediately taken down from YouTube, Facebook and Twitter, but it wasn’t completely erased. The shooter’s footage contains the kind of sensitive imagery that The PHOENIX staff believes shouldn’t be shown at all.
There are websites, news outlets and YouTube users that still have the video, though, and The PHOENIX staff feels some of them are misusing it.
Why It Shouldn’t Be Shown
When atrocities such as this one occur, most of the discussion centers around gun control. This is a discussion that needs to be had, but The PHOENIX staff believes that in this particular case, there’s another important conversation that needs to occur: the way in which media handles the sensitive imagery of the situation.
We believe the graphic videos of three people being shot — two killed — shouldn’t have circulated on air. And yet, some news organizations are still sharing them with viewers. CNN, for one, shows the whole broadcast clip; Gawker, The New York Post and the New York Daily News show the shooter’s video.
As journalists, we must ask ourselves, “What is important for people to see? Is it the only way to tell the story or is it the best way to entice an audience?”
These questions come into play every day in a newsroom, and The PHOENIX staff believes journalists should be putting ethics first. Ratings, subscriptions and views should not be the priority when it comes to making decisions about graphic videos. When lives are being ripped apart or a whole community is suffering the loss of its members, the media shouldn’t want to show it for popularity, but rather out of necessity.
We can’t hide the violence, tragedy and hate in the world. Journalists everywhere should be exposing the world for what it is. However, we must contain ourselves. We must ask why we’re going to put up a video or photo of violent, graphic events. If it’s the only way people will understand the situation, we should publish it. If it’s just to get people to look, we should reconsider.
When we ask about the point of showing a graphic video or image, we must consider if the meaning truly cannot be conveyed in words.
When Emmett Till was lynched 60 years ago, his mother decided to have an open casket to show the world what happened to her son. She did it to show the brutality that many didn’t understand. There was a purpose.
The issue is not offending people with graphic material, nor is it censoring out the bad in the world; it’s about why we show what we show.
From the footage of Columbine in 1999 to the footage of ISIS beheadings, everything shown on air should have a purpose.
The clips from the broadcast make sense. There is a point in showing people that this happened on live television. It displays the violence in a way that shows viewers the out-of-nowhere nature of the situation. The PHOENIX staff doesn’t believe it was entirely necessary, but we, as journalists, can understand the choice.
With the shooter’s video, though, there is no valid purpose in showing it. The audience can understand through words that the shooter filmed this video. It’s easy enough to describe what is shown. All media accomplishes by airing the video is giving in to the wants of a deranged man who shot two of our own. Rather than making sense of his crime by replaying it over and over again, the media only serves to accomplish his goal of inflicting pain on others.