Coverage by TV networks of the on-air shootings of two journalists from WDBJ in Virginia last week, carried out with ghoulish media savvy by a former station colleague, followed the familiar, grim pattern. Networks profiled the shooter, gathered heartbroken reactions from loved ones and explored the psychology of homicide and the politics of gun control.
This time, though, the reports also revealed a remarkable shift in the media hierarchy: TV emerged as the most responsible place to find news about the shooting. The mad-as-hell medium savaged by Paddy Chayevsky in Network and more recently by The Daily Show and Last Week Tonight still went wall-to-wall, but actually seemed restrained in tone compared with online and print outlets.
In past tragedies—the Virginia Tech shooting comes to mind—TV seemed all too eager to air the incoherent ramblings of madmen in desperate pursuit of ratings points. In an infamous 1987 case still taught in journalism schools, several Pennsylvania stations decided to air footage of state treasurer Budd Dwyer fatally shooting himself hours after the act occurred at a news conference.
This time, social media wound up as the platform that not merely the squeamish but the principled had to avoid. The killer, Vester Lee Flanagan, recorded himself stalking and shooting reporter Alison Parker and cameraman Adam Ward, later tweeting a string of complaints revolving around workplace conflicts as he fled police.
While Flanagan’s social media accounts were swiftly shut down, his horrifying footage—which CNN’s Ashleigh Banfield justly termed “an execution video”—automatically played when thousands of users logged in thanks to the instant-gratification settings of Facebook and Twitter. The debate over exposing viewers to the video centered on social networks and websites. New York’s tabloid newspapers got more grief than TV for their exploitative, front-page images of the shooting victims frozen in terror. Network talent including CNN’s Brian Stelter publicly agonized over how to deliver updates and visuals. At one point, he tweeted, “Journos—take a few minutes, call someone you love, try to process today. (I’m tweeting this advice mostly to myself.)”
Al Tompkins, Poynter Institute senior faculty, broadcast and online, drew a distinction between the shooter’s video and WDBJ’s live morning-show video. The station’s footage, posted within minutes to YouTube, captured not only the shooting but also a fleeting image that a dying Ward managed to get of the gunman pointing the weapon with a chillingly blank expression. WDBJ employees were reportedly able to identify Flanagan minutes after the shooting when they saw that image frozen on screens in the station’s control room.
In a blog post, Tompkins said news organizations should proceed with caution when using the shooter’s video: “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.”
The novelty of the shooter’s video dictated a lot of the decisions about using it. But other than that element, Tompkins added, it doesn’t contribute to the story and in fact, he wrote: “Airing it may serve to encourage copycat violence.”
By and large, TV seemed to heed that caution. It’s hard to remember another violent event when the 24/7 TV news machine so clearly cast aside the O.J. Simpson blueprint of how to cover a sensational breaking story. Instead, networks never seemed to lose sight of the fact that they were covering the deaths of two of their own.
STORY LEAVES SOCIAL FOOTPRINTS
From the initial reports of shots fired, to a gunman’s own tweets, followed by thousands as he fled police, to laments and debate as the chaos of Aug. 26 subsided, Twitter offered a compelling window onto the WDBJ shootings. Here are a few of the day’s most resonant tweets.
“I filmed the shooting see Facebook”
—Vester Lee Flanagan (@bryce_williams7), the gunman who shot and killed the reporter and cameraman during a live broadcast, moments before posting videos of the shooting on Twitter and Facebook
“GM@WDBJ7 said honestly about the captured alleged shooter of 2 dead employees, ‘I don’t know whether I want him to live or die.’ #fox5atl”
—Dana Fowle (@danafowlefox5), WAGA Atlanta reporter, quoting comments from WDBJ general manager Jeff Marks.
“NEW: Vicki Gardner, #WDBJ shooting victim, in stable condition after surgery, Carilion Roanoke Memorial Hospital says http://abcn.ws/1U6g8i3”
—ABC News (@ABC)
“We didn’t share this publicly, but @AParkerWDBJ7 and I were very much in love. We just moved in together. I am numb.”
—Chris Hurst (@chrishurstwdbj), news anchor at WDBJ and boyfriend of Alison Parker, the reporter who was shot and killed that morning.
“According to shooters manifesto he carved initials of victims of Charleston church shooting into bullets he used. #WDBJ #roanoke”
—Bret Baier (@BretBaier), Fox News anchor. With the racial element of the shootings, a mini #blacklivesmatter debate broke out online.
“Please do not post, retweet, like, or encourage the #WDBJ video... Let’s remember Alison & Adam’s smile, spark, & ambition! #WeStandWithWDBJ”
—Nikki-Dee Ray (@NikkiDeeRay), morning meteorologist at WTVR in nearby Richmond, Va. There was much debate whether news channels should air and users on social media should retweet the video of the shootings.
“Our country has a gun violence problem. Shootings like these are far too common here. My prayers are with the #WDBJ family.”
—Gabrielle Giffords (@GabbyGiffords), the former Arizona congresswoman who, while meeting with constituents at a supermarket in 2011, was shot in the head by a gunman.
“Heartbroken over senseless murders today in Smith Mountain Lake. State Police on scene working w/ local law agencies to capture suspect.”
—Terry McAuliffe (@GovernorVA), Virginia governor
“#BreakingNews Franklin Co. Sheriff confirms the shooting suspect died at 1:30pm. at Fairfax Inova Hospital of a self-inflicted gunshot wound”