August 26, 2015

I saw a clip of Matt Lauer today. He said that viewing the video of the murder of two journalists “took my breath away.” Here is the man, I thought, who broadcast to me news of planes flying into the twin towers on 9/11. It must take a lot to take this veteran’s breath away.

Then I watched the one-minute video myself, and I knew what he meant. It seems unreal at first, even though I know what is going to happen. I cringe. It gives off the feel of a deranged person imitating a video game. You see this person approaching three people in the middle of a television news feature. A friendly reporter interviews another woman. A man, seen from the back, operates a camera. The stalker gets closer. The three ignore him, focused on their task. He raises his gun. Lowers it. He moves into position directly behind the photographer. He raises the gun again. He fires several times. There is screaming and then a black screen with more screaming.

I suddenly realize the full significance of what I’m watching. I am watching two murders (with a third person wounded) from the point of view of the killer. This is no video game or stalker movie. It is real. It is news of a kind I have never seen before.

Like so many other journalists, I have been following the murders of two of our colleagues in Virginia today, Alison Parker and Adam Ward. As the news unfolded, one shock has followed another:

  • That two journalists were murdered on the job.
  • That the shooting was captured by the photographer, who was himself a victim.
  • That the murder was committed by another journalist, a former employee at WDBJ in Roanoke, described by a number of sources as “disgruntled.”
  • That the killer, Vester Lee Flanagan (known on the air as Bryce Williams) claimed a grudge against the two victims.
  • That Flanagan, using a cellphone or other recording device, shot a one-minute first-person point of view video of the murders, in which he can be seen slowly approaching the victims, moving into place, his gun hand extended.
  • That somewhere during a five-hour escape attempt on Virginia highways, the killer found a way to upload his video to his Twitter and Facebook accounts, along with his personal grievances against Parker and Ward.

If it is the strange and unusual that helps define the news, the terrible events of today rank high on the news scale. They are hard to talk about in this analytical way given the terrible loss of life and the fact that the victim – and the killer – had been members of our brotherhood and sisterhood of journalists. But it’s also our job to find meaning — news value — in the most extreme circumstances.

  • It is not unusual for an employee to wreak havoc in the workplace. There is even a crude and unfair cliché to describe that genre of mass shooting. We call it “going postal.” Journalists cover these events all the time. What is so different here is that the victims and killer were journalists themselves.
  • I know of many stories about violence in the newsroom, mostly against property. There are occasional fistfights. And I know of one former editor who says – and I believe her – that a police reporter pulled a gun on her during a workplace altercation. I know stories of cops who kill other cops, of soldiers who kill other soldiers. But I know of no other incident in which a journalist has murdered another journalist — especially while a story was being reported.
  • There is a piece of this story that can only be said to reflect the darkest impulses of social media and the digital age. One of the most famous pieces of film in American history shows the instant that an assassin’s bullet destroyed the brain of John F. Kennedy. That film was shot by a man named Abraham Zapruder, a spectator, not by the killer Lee Harvey Oswald.
  • Not only did Flanagan shoot his former co-workers, he took a video of the murder, a video that looks eerily like a video game in which we see the world through the eyes of the shooter. It feels like a homicidal, suicidal selfie, expressing the vicious narcissism of a murderer showing off his own hand firing off his own gun.

The collision of these unusual elements with the routine tropes of mass violence (disgruntled worker, mental illness, access to guns, manifesto) will make this story hugely difficult for journalists to cover in a responsible way. My colleagues, Al Tompkins and Kelly McBride, have written about and discussed the issues surrounding the journalistic use and abuse of not just one, but two shocking videos (one by the victim, the other by the killer).

One of the most disturbing things I saw this morning was a tweet by a media outlet (I will not name it) that showed a .GIF, that is, a quick, repeating video image, of two shooting victims falling down over, and over and over again. That does not feel like mere insensitivity to me. It just feels wrong. The tools of the digital age, like all technologies, are morally neutral. They can be used to inform, inspire and console. And we learn again today that they can be used with murderous rage to blot out everything that is human and decent.

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Roy Peter Clark has taught writing at Poynter to students of all ages since 1979. He has served the Institute as its first full-time faculty…
Roy Peter Clark

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