August 26, 2015

WDBJ reporter Alison Parker and photojournalist Adam Ward became the 31st and 32nd journalist murdered this year while doing their jobs.

They were on the air doing a routine morning show assignment on tourism. They weren’t on a foreign battlefield or similar dangerous place journalists around the globe report from daily, but today’s news underscores that it isn’t just war correspondents who find themselves in danger these days.

The Committee to Protect Journalists provides this list of journalists killed in 2015:

But look at where these killings happened:

Now you can add rural Moneta, Virginia to that list.

The public nature of the shooting raises several questions about the ethics of including graphic images of the incident in news stories and television broadcasts. I’ve attempted to provide some guidance here for news directors and editors trying to make sense of the violence.

Using the video

A number of journalists have asked me if I thought it was ethical to use the video of the shooting on air and online. My answer is, “it all depends.” It depends on why you are using the video and how you will use it and how long you will use it.

We know now that the video itself is news — not just because it shows the shooting but also because it appears to show the shooter. That is reason enough to show the video in some way.

But consider alternatives. In the early hours after the shooting, the video (complete with horrific audio) was news because the “what” of the story was still unfolding. As the story turns to “why,” the graphic video becomes less newsworthy.

So you have a few options:

  • Use the video unedited with audio.
  • Use the video up to the moment that screaming begins and cut the audio but continue the video.
  • Use the video with no audio.
  • Use still frames and no video.
  • Use none of the images.

What about the shooter’s video?

The shooter, Vester Flanagan, recorded his own actions and posted the video on social media while on the run from police.

That video is, once again, news because it is evidence.

Why air it? The extremely graphic video is a firsthand account of what happened. It shows how close the shooter stood while the crew was on the air. He pointed the semi-automatic pistol at Parker while she continued the interview. He backed off for a few seconds, then raised the weapon again and began firing point-blank.

And it is too graphic to use.

Journalists can be justified in airing or publishing graphic images when the images resolve disputes about what occurred. In shootings involving police, for example, when there is a question about the justifiable use of force, video, even graphic video, can clear or indict the shooter. There has to be a journalistic purpose to justify the graphic image’s use.

Other than the astonishing nature of the video, it adds little information about what happened. The facts are clear without using it. There was a lone shooter at close range, and his image appeared on the news camera video. The first-person video shows an execution. Airing it may serve to encourage copycat violence. The shooter may have meant to show the video as a way of punishing and humiliating his victims. It might have given him a great sense of power to be in control, and airing the video only feeds that emotion.

Using the contents of the faxed complaint

ABC News says it received a 23-page fax from the suspected shooter overnight and turned it over to authorities.

Killers have sent newsrooms such writings on many occasions. Sometimes newsrooms publish the contents and sometimes not.

Seung-Hui Cho, the student who was responsible for the 2007 Virginia Tech massacre, sent a package with video, an 1,800-word essay and photos to NBC News. He attempted to justify his violence. The images were widely published and aired.

The Unabomber, Ted Kaczynski, threatened large-scale violence if The Washington Post and The New York Times didn’t publish his 35,000-word manifesto. They did publish it as an eight-page supplement that was not part of their news sections. They published it on the recommendation of the Attorney General and the director of the FBI.

We do not know what Flanagan said in his message to ABC News. A screed that targets another employee and the station with complaints is likely not newsworthy. If the writing can provide useful information that the public should know to increase public safety, then it could be newsworthy.

There is no rush to publish this. ABC News did the right thing in turning it over while not reporting details of the contents just yet. There may be a time when it is newsworthy, but not today.

WDBJ’s coverage

I should preface this next comment with a disclosure. I have taught at WDBJ, and General Manager Jeff Marks is a longtime friend of mine. Marks is the former chairman of the Radio and Television Digital News Association and has been a news professional for more than 40 years. This spring, the station rewarded top employees with a retreat to Poynter for a day of training.

When the shooting occurred, the station quickly reported the story that unfolded on its air. They posted the names and images of the victims and Marks didn’t hide from questions about the incident or the shooter. Marks appeared on the station’s noon newscast and confirmed Flanagan was a disgruntled former employee who had grievances against employees.

So often, when newsrooms find themselves in the middle of a story, they shut down and go silent. WBDJ didn’t. The station’s anchors found the strength to do their jobs. Somehow they found the strength not to cry on the air. They were solid as granite. The station had planned a gathering for today to celebrate awards the station had won this year. The celebration became a memorial gathering. The station provided counselors.

Lessons for us all

I have talked with many journalists today who are asking me what this all means to journalism. Here’s what I have been telling them:

The job of journalism involves risk and danger. You are in the public eye, and you don’t always know how the public will react. But let’s not overstate the danger you face each day. The drive to your assignment is likely the biggest risk to your safety.

Let’s not allow this incident to stop journalists from going out into the public and hearing what people have to say to us. Not much news happens in the newsroom.

Newsrooms should take this time to assess how much risk they expose their journalists to every day. I am especially concerned about the large number of one-man-band journalists who wade into crowds and confront people who would rather not talk. A journalist with a camera is a target. A journalist with a camera working alone is an easy target.

Train, train, train. The number of newsrooms that train journalists how to be safe is a small number indeed.

Bosses should get out there and see what they are asking of their employees. It is easy to ask people to confront danger when you have no idea what you are asking of them. Get out there and see what it’s like and you will make more informed decisions.

Is it time to rethink whether every liveshot should be on a delay. There was no reason, none at all, to think that this morning’s liveshot would turn into a double murder. And it didn’t have to air live. We have had the technology to delay live shots for decades. It is time to use it — not just when you are covering a hostage standoff or a car chase. Whole YouTube channels now show collections of reporters being insulted, assaulted and kissed while trying to do their jobs live on the air. Profanity and nudity is quite common, and we shrug it off with a “who knew that would happen” look. Delay the shot like radio stations routinely put live callers on delay.

It’s time, past time, to do that.

Related: Covering Your Own Story: A Conversation with WDBJ Staff

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