There is no introduction to a larger lesson here. There is no anecdote to illustrate a main topic. Attempting to make one would be disrespectful and a waste of time.
There is a tragedy. It is horrifying. It’s senseless and stupid and heartbreaking and close to home.
And like journalists have to do, like we’ve always done — we have no choice but to carry on. Our actions and decisions as journalists are unfortunately shaped by tragedies like these.
So we have a choice – be angry and hurt and let it consume us, or channel it into creating something positive. Use it to make a difference in the world.
It sucks. But that is the burden we bear as journalists.
This morning, WDBJ reporter Alison Parker and photojournalist Adam Ward were conducting a live on-air interview for their morning show when a man walked up to them and opened fire. Parker and Ward were killed. Their interview subject, Vicki Gardner, was rushed to the hospital in critical condition.
The shooter was identified as Vester Lee Flanagan – a former reporter for WDBJ who went by the on-air name Bryce Williams. Police chased Flanagan’s car until he crashed it, and he shot and killed himself.
I, like many others, followed the updates in horror as it unfolded live on social media. This is the story of following the tragedy online, the role and impact of (and on) the media, and the lasting effect it will have.
I woke up this morning at 6:05. Set the snooze button for 10 minutes. Got up, checked on my son, and hopped in the shower. My first stop in the morning after waking up is always to my computer, to catch up on the news overnight. The first page I visited was a Gawker Media site, where the headline confronted me immediately: “Gunman murders two Virginia reporters in attack broadcast on live TV.”
I was stunned. Live TV? How could this happen? I have heard plenty of terrible stories of reporters being attacked while on assignment, almost never while on the air.
The story came with an embedded video. In my shock, I clicked it.
I don’t know what I expected to see.
I will not embed that video here, nor will I link to it. There is no purpose to reliving and sharing these people’s horrifying final moments. I cried. I rushed over and hugged my wife. Seeing something so horrible was scarring. And the more I thought, the more I thought about all of the hundreds of live shots I did with photographers over the years … the many friends and fellow reporters who go live from so many different locations … the thought of something like this happening to a news team was too much to bear.
I should not have watched the video, but I did, and so did millions of others who got their news this morning. But the story wasn’t done. The gunman was still on the loose, so we went to the one place where everyone goes now as terrible stories unfold: Twitter.
News typically occurs the same essential way every time. Something happens, then more things happen, then it gets reported. But with the advancements in technology over the past 10 years, that process now occurs in real-time. As viewers, we see the story unfold at practically the same time reporters do. In a perfect world, this gives viewers the best seat to stay updated as something happens – helping keep the population informed.
Today showed how that process goes wrong.
20 years ago, the only people who would have seen the tragic video would have been those viewers who were tuned in at the time. Today, the video was uploaded almost instantly to the Internet, where it spread from user to user like wildfire. Gawker had it. CNN had it. Joe Schmoe on Facebook was posting it. It was inescapable.
As the story unfolded in real time, more information was pushed out. Photos of Parker and Ward. Blurry screenshots of the gunman, then clearer views of him. News of how co-workers were reacting to the killings. Revelations that the shooter was a “disgruntled ex-employee.”
Information was pushed out faster than people could process, and at times, faster than the news networks could process. What information was vetted? What was accurate? What wasn’t? And more importantly, is this information people need to know, or does it serve to only fill people’s Twitter timelines?
Some in the news media stressed caution, which can be a four-letter word in Twitter journalism.
Because it happened live on-air, it put news networks in an uncomfortable position: do we show the video? If so, how much? Everyone had different rules. Notably, CNN showed the full video once per hour, until deciding at 2 p.m. to only show the video up until right before the gunshots.
Poynter’s Kelly McBride said showing the video, or at least part of it, could have a purpose.
“There is a journalistic purpose to airing the shooter’s video because it speaks to his warped state of mind. But you have to find a way to convey the important elements without buying into the shooter’s message and feeding the voyeuristic scariness of it,” McBride wrote.
Journalists have a responsibility. We are gatekeepers to the public. Journalism is not about showing everything in all its morbid details – it’s about presenting the news in a responsible way to help viewers make sense of it. Most commonly, it means making sure information is accurate and double-checked. In awful situations, it means deciding what to show and what not to. You don’t show the mangled bodies in a car wreck, but you show the car. You don’t show burn victims after a house fire, just the flames. You find the way to tell the story accurately, objectively, and with sensitivity. It means taking an extra beat and deciding whether showing a video of reporters screaming for their lives and being shot on air adds anything to the public’s understanding.
I’d argue no.
There’s no single answer for something like this. But I would point to the Society of Professional Journalists Code of Ethics, which says journalists should: “Balance the public’s need for information against potential harm or discomfort.” It later adds: “Avoid pandering to lurid curiosity, even if others do.”
We are the gatekeepers. We inform the public while also protecting people from the most horrifying images.
As easy as it is on Twitter to post first and ask questions later, it should not be the norm for journalists.
Because gatekeeping also means being responsible for what you discover and post on social media. While the story unfolded, CNN’s Brian Stelter found the alleged Twitter account belonging to the gunman. He quickly posted it, hoping to add another layer to the story.
But in his rush, Stelter didn’t see that the account was actively Tweeting at that moment. Instead viewers like me unsuspectingly clicked on the profile. To my horror, a video on the man’s timeline began to autoplay, showing the point of view of the shooter as he snuck up behind Parker and Ward, pointed a gun at them without them noticing, and fired.
The killer was live tweeting the murders.
The account only had a few followers and would likely have never been found. Instead, CNN gave hundreds of thousands of people a front row seat to one of the most disturbing videos we will ever see.
Twitter immediately suspended the account. And Stelter responded to viewers with this:
Trying, but not succeeding. In news, only the latter matters.
Post Traumatic Stress Disorder is real for reporters.
In a given day, your assignment may take you on any number of tough stories. It might be a murder. It might be a crash. It might be a house fire in which a family lost everything.
It doesn’t matter where you work or what your beat is, you’re going to see some bad things.
During the worst story I ever had to cover, a man murdered his wife and four children and set fire to their Medford home in July 2011. It became known as the Criado Family Murders. I was one of the first reporters on scene, where I saw first responders crowding the front lawn, giving CPR to small children.
I was so shocked, so sickened, that my brain shut off, and muscle memory took over. It’s how reporters’ brains cope with seeing this kind of trauma. I went into pure video collection mode. Shooting everything, no matter how grisly. I didn’t — couldn’t — allow myself to stop, because that would mean having to process the horror in front of me.
When you see something you can’t unsee, it’s all you can do.
But it didn’t stop there. I had to relive it all day doing live cut-ins from the scene. I had to relive it in the edit bay, where I saw the horrible video of bloody arms draped limply over the sides of a gurney. And all of us at the station had to relive it the next day, and the next day, and the next day, and for months after, as we devoted entire newscasts to follow up stories.
Journalists can’t turn off the TV. We can’t disconnect ourselves immediately. Because we still have a job to do. We still need to provide information to the public, still need to gather facts, and still need to hold ourselves together for the sake of our viewers. The public can’t be informed if we can’t do our jobs.
But that doesn’t mean we don’t feel anything. I went home the night of those murders and cried into my wife’s shoulder. We are still human. We hurt. We just have a job that forces us to shove it far below the surface. During our station’s coverage of the Criado murders, someone suggested to one of our producers that we should bring in counselors for our staff. That producer dismissed it. Didn’t think it was necessary. No psychological help was ever offered to us. Which I still think was a big mistake to this day.
Prick us, and do we not bleed?
Reporters and producers around the country today are going through this process of reliving the WDBJ shootings right now, and will continue to do it over the next few weeks. They have to continue to see the images of Parker and Ward, the photos of the gunman, and will likely have to rewatch the video to make sure it’s edited properly for air. And despite the heartache, they’ll do it, because they understand the responsibility of reporters.
And let me tell you, on days like this, it really sucks.
It doesn’t matter where you go in a TV news career. It doesn’t matter if you work in a small market or a network, whether you’re a veteran, a newbie out of college, or “on the beach” between TV jobs. We’re all family. We all know what it’s like to work crazy hours for little pay, what it’s like to cover city council meetings and wildfires and thunderstorms, and what it’s like to go out with a photog, or by yourself, to report live from the field.
A tragedy like this hit reporters across the country like a punch to the gut.
Something like this makes you seek out solace in your extended news family. I got text messages, Tweets, and Facebook posts from colleagues, and people I studied broadcasting with in college. We all reached out to each other, even if we were thousands of miles away, or no longer in the business, to make sure they were OK.
When a family member dies, you grieve together.
In the hours after the shootings, reporters and producers across the country responded in one of the noblest ways they know how: by focusing on the wonderful people Parker and Ward were, rather than the horror of the shooting.
It’s not only an example of a family coming together, it’s example of something I hope all journalist aspire to: the wisdom, knowledge and strength to find the humanity in a story. In an era where if it bleeds, it leads, it’s tempting to focus only on grisly details and horror stories. But many reporters today are asking their brethren to hold themselves to a higher standard – to show there are human beings with lives and loved ones involved in this story. Telling a story completely is about finding every aspect and treating it with the same reverence. It’s something I hope journalists aspire to.
And not just when it happens to one of their own.
These senseless killings hit close to home. All journalists feel a connection to Parker and Ward and mourn their loss. This tragedy is bringing out the best in some journalists today, but it’s my hope that they would have the same aspirations if the victims weren’t part of the news family.
I called one of my mentors today, angry that something like this could happen to journalists. He asked, why just for journalists? To paraphrase him, he hopes journalists care about the last one and the next one the same as this one.
All killings are senseless. We’ve covered them, but now we know what it’s like when something horrible happens to a colleague, or a member of our (news) family. Let’s take the feelings we have today and build something positive with this. The next time we have that awful assignment of covering a killing, whether it’s an innocent victim or a scumbag, let’s remember back to this moment, when we understood what it felt like to grieve for a colleague and what role the media plays in that grief, and give those next killings the same sensitivity. Let’s find the humanity in those cases. Let’s focus on the good people the victims were. Let’s avoid sensationalism. Let’s carry on and change the world with our storytelling.
Because in the end, that’s what journalists always do. We carry on. There will be more killings. There will be more senseless violence. There will be things we can’t unsee. There will be mistakes.
But there will still be journalists. Let’s do work that honors the legacy of Parker and Ward. Let’s help each other carry the burden of journalists – the ability to find a little meaning in something so senseless.