WDBJ shooting videos raise questions about graphic content

Alison Parker and Adam Ward

This post was originally published on my JN 499 class blog at The University of Alabama, a course dealing with journalism ethics: https://uajn499.wordpress.com/2015/09/02/wdbj-shooting-videos-raise-questions-about-graphic-content/

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He got his way, and the media helped make sure of that.

If, by chance, you were anywhere near a television, phone or computer, the story – and more importantly the video – was next to impossible to miss.

Alison Parker, 24, and her cameraman, Adam Ward, 27, of WDBJ, a CBS-affiliated television station based in Roanoke, Virginia, were murdered on live television last Wednesday, and the whole world got to see it unfold.

Just how the shooter planned it.

Within the hour, many media outlets, big and small, digital and broadcast, were either showing the video captured by Ward’s camera in its entirety on their network, or on their websites. A few short hours later, a second video was released showing a clear first-person account of the act from the shooter, and that made its rounds, too.

And each time the videos were the same: calm, chaos, horror.

So was it worth it?

“It all depends,” said Al Tompkins, a senior faculty at the Poynter Institute.

“It depends on why you are using the video and how you will use it and how long you will use it,” Tompkins wrote in a post on Poynter.org.

Yet, even as the networks and websites provided a fair warning about the shocking violence forthcoming, to me, I couldn’t help shake the feeling that some of these organizations presented the video(s) without a second thought.

I’m not naïve. In today’s world thanks in large part to social media, the videos were bound to go viral, with or without the help of news organizations. But aren’t murders reported all the time without the help of a video? Would the story have not been believable otherwise? It’s a question whether the videos actually presented any pertinent information for the viewers when a description in print or by word of mouth would have sufficed.

As journalists, we need to think carefully about what we put out. Just as we cautiously make sure that everything is factually and grammatical correct in our stories, we should also take a moment to examine its presentation, too.

Because no matter the size or significance of your story, it’s going to make people think and shape their opinions in one way or another. According to the Society of Professional Journalists’ Code of Ethics, it’s a journalist’s responsibility to minimize the harm of the public, among others in their reporting.

But when the manner in which the reporting is carried out potentially traumatizes the public, not to mention glorifies the shooter in a way in which I’m not sure any mass shooter in the past has ever been before, the journalist or organization should realize they are probably treading a fine line of responsibility.

A Forbes article in 2012 supports that notion, calling the media “consistent accomplices” in most public shootings, as the story often focuses on the shooter more than the victim(s).

So, how else could it have been handled?

Andrew Clare, a senior at The University of Alabama working as a paid, full-time intern at WVUA in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, believes the video could have been presented just as well by other means.

“I would not have shown the video,” Clare said. “I think it would have probably been fine to put up the part of the video before he opened fire, but not the whole thing.”

Instead, Clare suggests still frames or B-roll as worthy alternatives. Journalists, he says, should be mindful of the victims and those closest to them.

“I understand why people think it is newsworthy to show the videos,” he said, “but from a media standpoint, you still have to respect those victims, and you have to understand what their organization and family are going through.”

Unfortunately, I’m not sure everyone in the media agrees.

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