Editorial: Gazing into the Abyss

Into the Abyss
Journalists Alison Parker and Adam Ward lost their lives in late August while reporting in the field. They weren’t dodging air strikes or shadowing a military unit. They were in Virginia, interviewing the executive director of the local chamber of commerce during an early morning broadcast for WDBJ in Roanoke. Their senseless deaths were captured on live TV as a former colleague, Vester Lee Flanagan II, gunned them down, killing Parker and Ward and injuring their interview subject.

Soon, their murders began to circulate online—but they were coming from a video Flanagan had filmed as he shot and killed Parker and Ward and uploaded to his own Facebook and Twitter accounts. Although both social media companies were quick to remove the videos, enough damage had already been done due to autoplay.

As journalists, we act as filters to what we choose to show our readers, but what if those filters are no longer there? What if they’re out of our control? Flanagan himself was a journalist and chose to use social media as his platform, possibly using the skills he learned in the newsroom to distribute his awful content.

Farhad Manjoo of The New York Times called Flanagan’s actions a “well-planned rollout on social media.”

“The horror was the dawning realization, as the video spread across the networks, that the killer had anticipated the moves—that he had been counting on the mechanics of these services and on our inability to resist passing on what he had posted,” Manjoo wrote.

Many publications had to decide whether or not to show the video clips on their websites or even print stills from the killings. Newspapers like The New York Daily News and The New York Post were criticized for publishing the images on their front pages. The Times reported that the Daily News defended its decision to use the images, saying they were “a definitive part of the story, however disturbing and horrific.”

Once again, the media was faced with an ethics dilemma. What is considered newsworthy and what is considered censorship? Also, in this case, what happens when social media backfires on you?

“The media needs to adopt a similar sensible framework to covering mass killings. And in the age of social media, that also means changing our own behavior,” Zeynep Tufekci wrote in The New York Times.

Kurt Wagner of re/code predicted this wouldn’t the last time we would see “murder videos” on Twitter and Facebook.

“They can build software to identify and remove content once they know there’s a problem. But they can’t use that technology until the cat’s out of the bag,” he wrote. “This is the trade-off you make when you rely on user-generated content, which both Facebook and Twitter do almost exclusively. You reap the benefits that come with the best of humanity, but you also wear the scars that come with the worst.”

As the media industry chases down content to go viral in order to generate as many hits, retweets, likes, and shares as possible, perhaps it’s best we learn to slow down. What happened to Parker and Ward was terrible and tragic; we must understand that there are two sides to social media: when we hit publish and when we don’t.

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Published: October 2, 2015

One thought on “Editorial: Gazing into the Abyss

  • March 30, 2016 at 8:44 pm
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    This tragedy is just a glimpse of the ethical questions gatekeepers, journalists, and the common social media person are forced to ask each time they post something. There is something to be said about a person or company that choses to not publish something not because it will not receive likes (in many cases it would receive a lot of feedback), but because it is against their ethical nature.

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