Understanding what we need to see — and do not

August 27, 2015

By Gene Policinski
Inside the First Amendment 

Murder. Real. Live.

The shooting of two television journalists. Viewable from two perspectives, including that of the gunman himself.

We saw — or could see if we wished, and apparently millions of us did — the awfulness of it, immediately. And over and over and over again, on TV and online.

The news was that WDBJ7 reporter Alison Parker and photographer Adam Ward were dead, and interviewee Vicki Gardner wounded, during one of those all-too-familiar morning news “live shots.” Shot multiple times by a man identified by police as a former colleague of Parker and Ward, Vester Lee Flanagan II, who later fatally wounded himself as police closed in on his car.

And then there were the videos. First, from Ward’s own camera, airing ”live” in all its stupefying, banal-to-shocking 40 seconds or so as the interview turned into horror. Later, in truncated bits and pieces, as networks and online news operations made individual decisions.

CNN didn’t show it, and then showed it with ample warning to viewers, and later not at all. Other news operations stopped the videos just before the shooting started, or showed still images taken from WDBJ7’s video.

Not so online, where for hours — and very likely, still, as you read this — the entire ghastly episode played on.

And then, two videos posted on social media, apparently by the gunman himself, showing the murders as he must have viewed them. They were taken down quickly by Twitter and Facebook — as soon as eight minutes after posting on Twitter, one news account said. But a copy posted on Facebook was reported to have 3,000 views “a few hours after the shooting.”

Once again, the questions arise: When does responsible journalism mutate into sensationalism and voyeurism? When does a free press need to show — and society need to see — reality in all its awfulness? And when is it just “what we do because we can?” For online sites, when does “a right to do” lose its connection with “the right thing to do?”

Wednesday certainly was not the first time shocking images of violent death, often obtained for the first time through new technology of the era, have dominated the news media — and both stunned and fascinated the nation.

While Wednesday’s drama played out on social media and on the Web, it was a newspaper that provoked criticism the next day. The New York Daily Newscover showing Parker being shot from the killer’s perspective drew a description of "death porn" from one media critic.

But Justin Fenton, a crime reporter at The Baltimore Sun, told The Washington Post that "the Daily News cover offered insight into a crime that prose can’t.” On his Twitter account, he wrote, “NY Daily News cover is frightening but not gory. … Reaction at least on my timeline is uniform outrage. … Personally … covering gun violence daily, I don’t think the words convey the horror the way these images do.”

Early Thursday, a new tweet topped his posts: “Reports of 6 shot overnight, from 9 pm-12:30am, including a double (non fatal) in Cherry Hill.”

A 1928 Daily News photo cover is a landmark item in the debate over what should or should not be shown. Surreptitiously taken by a photographer who had hidden an ankle-camera under his pants leg, the photo is said to show convicted murderer Ruth Snyder straining against her bonds in the Sing Sing Prison electric chair as the current took her life. The result: nationwide bans on photographers at executions that continue today.

Magazine photos of racially motivated lynchings brought that terrible practice into subscribers’ homes. And the then-new media of the 1950s and 1960s, by airing film of snarling dogs, burning buses and fire hose streams blasting children, turned the conscience of a nation. Even as the nation in 1963 mourned a president, midday TV showed us “live” the killing of his assassin — 50 years later still an indelible moment for those who watched it.

In this newly interconnected global media hothouse, live images of violent death seem ever more frequent; it was just one year ago that ISIS terrorists used social media to show video of the beheadings of journalists James Foley and Steve Sotloff. Not long after, it was a hostage being burned alive. On April 4, in North Charleston, S.C., a citizen video recorded the shooting by a police officer of a man fleeing in a park after being stopped for a traffic violation.

Wednesday’s on-camera tragedy should bring a new level of concern and discussion over what we can see, and whether we should see it — and how new technology may not only record and distribute, but invite.

A few decades ago, TV journalists once debated whether to show recorded images of violence and death, and then whether to build in several-second delays on “live” reports to allow for such screening.

In 1987, when a Pennsylvania state official shot and killed himself at a news conference, editors and news directors were in charge of deciding what we would see. And to a large degree, we didn’t.

In contrast, within 60 minutes of the first reports of Wednesday’s killings, a network commentator apologized online for not being able to describe in more detail the Roanoke, Va., station’s own video. As he explained, he was watching a blurry cellphone video of a TV image showing a replay. But he, and we, could hear the shots being fired and the victims’ screams.

Online, the immediacy was entangled with the bizarre circumstance that the gunman’s own cellphone video of the killing was posted. Reports are that, using his on-air ID, “Bryce Williams,” Flanagan invited an online audience by tweeting, “I filmed the shooting See Facebook.”

USA Today reported that “at 11:14 a.m., Flanagan tweeted two short videos and posted a 56-second video to Facebook” that showed him approaching Parker, Ward, and the person being interviewed. The gun, in his right hand, comes into view — unnoticed by the trio until the gunman fires. The Twitter text posts are updated six times in 20 minutes, according to The New York Times.

In “frame grabs” that appear to be from one of those videos, published online by the British newspaper the Daily Mail, Parker is shown reacting in shock as the gunman fires.

To be sure, as history demonstrates, there are times we need to see — and remember for generations — what real terror and horrific events are like. Holocaust deniers can never overcome the truth carried by stark images now preserved for the ages.

After the violence earlier this year in Baltimore that followed the death of an unarmed African American man in police custody, a veteran journalism educator was critical of news coverage “live” from the city streets that he felt misrepresented the scope of what some called “riots.” “Live,” he said, “was no longer journalism, but just marketing” — a ploy to attract viewers, but which added nothing to understanding the news.

There’s some theorizing already that each of these deadly real-reality shows prompt copycats who are encouraged by the resulting media exposure, and then are driven to find new and even more dramatic methods to capture the world’s attention. And then there are those in the media who would rather shock than inform, valuing “click-bait” over information.

Once again, the challenge for journalists reporting on our behalf — and now for those re-tweeting and repeating the killer’s cold-blooded social media posts — is to find the balance that lets us both see to understand and to understand what we need to see. And what we do not.

Gene Policinski is chief operating officer of the Newseum Institute and senior vice president of the Institute’s First Amendment Center. He can be reached at gpolicinski@newseum.org. Follow him on Twitter: @genefac

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