Poynter’s Al Tompkins: Should You Use the Video and the Fax from the WDBJ Shooting?

WDBJ-Shooting-Suspect-screencap

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.

breitbart-clip

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.

shooting-drudge

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…(read more)

Poynter’s Al Tompkins



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