The news as sensationalismThe nation was recently shocked by the killing of a reporter and her cameraman as they did a live TV broadcast. Alison Parker and Adam Ward were shooting an interview in southern Virginia when a former station employee shot both of them to death on the air. The shooter, Vester Lee Flanagan II, recorded the murders and posted video of the shooting from his point of view to social media. Mr. Flanagan played into our natural desire to witness and perhaps our cultural fascination with violence, knowing that people would not be able to resist viewing the shooting. Although his posts were quickly removed from Facebook and Twitter, the videos were already in the ether, downloaded and distributed by many. The news media were forced to decide whether to play into his hand by showing his videos or deny him the attention he wanted by focusing on his victims.
WDBJ-7, the television station from which the journalists were reporting, inadvertently broadcast the shooting on their own camera, by Mr. Flanagan’s design. For other news media outlets the ethical dilemma arose of what or how much of the murders they would show. The killer’s own graphic video was also available to show viewers. Should it be shown or not?
The New York Daily News received a lot of criticism for running a cover with stills from Mr. Flanagan’s video that appear to show Ms. Parker at the moment she was shot. The public and other news outlets criticized the Daily News quite roundly for the graphic images with some people advocating a #boycottnydailynews hashtag on Twitter. Critics accused the paper of sensationalizing the murders and exploiting the victims. A editor from the Dallas Morning News said there were a “hundred journalistically responsible ways” to communicate the horror of the events without resorting to the New York Daily News’ approach.
Where then is the line between reporting the news and simply using shock value to drive sales? Journalism tends toward the exploitative by its very nature necessitating an organizational and personal conscience toward what is and is not acceptable or newsworthy. “In the end journalism is an act of character” and I think the outcry over the depiction of this tragedy shows that journalism’s character is still alive and well.