After reports emerged on Wednesday that three people were shot on live television during a local news broadcast in Virginia, reporters and social media users were faced with an immediate ethical dilemma: Should they republish the graphic footage of WDBJ-TV reporter Alison Parker’s and cameraman Adam Ward’s murders?
Some major news outlets, including Buzzfeed, CBS News, Yahoo, and the Daily Beast, initially embedded the video of the shooting in their stories about the incident. CNN reporters said the network would air the video once every hour.
The debate quickly became pronounced on social media, where Twitter’s autoplay settings ensured that some users saw the video simply because it was retweeted into their timelines and immediately started to play. According to Mashable, one video of the incident was retweeted more than 800 times before that user’s account was eventually suspended.
Just a few hours after the video was first released, the tide appeared to turn. Perhaps due to backlash from people on social media urging their followers not to share the footage, or perhaps thanks to the WDBJ-TV staff themselves who expressed opposition to publishing it, most outlets stopped linking directly to the footage. Early Wednesday afternoon, CNN announced that it would no longer air the video of the shooting.
There isn’t broad consensus about how to handle this type of coverage. Some reporters have pushed back on the idea that outlets shouldn’t publish graphic footage, arguing that it’s their job to provide coverage of upsetting events in a way that doesn’t sanitize real-world violence.
Publishing uncensored images of the graphic violence of war, for instance, has historically helped sway public opinion about the United States’ military involvement — but has also gotten members of the press accused of having an anti-war agenda. While some people say it’s inappropriate and perhaps voyeuristic for the press to put disturbing photos on the front pages of newspapers, others insist that upsetting photographs are necessary to understand the true nature of warfare.
Similar controversy has raged around specific acts of violence committed against journalists. When U.S. photojournalist James Foley was kidnapped and beheaded by Islamist militants, for example, newsrooms around the world struggled to determine their role in covering the shocking death without giving a platform to ISIS propaganda.
Live television is particularly fraught because there’s less of an opportunity to warn viewers that they’re about to see something disturbing. In 2013, Fox News was broadcasting a dramatic car chase when the man being pursued by police got out of his car and shot himself. The network was widely criticized for failing to cut away before the suicide occurred — although several sites like Buzzfeed and Gawker republished the footage online — and the man’s children sued.
More recently, as social media has become a tool to hold the mainstream media accountable for covering topics related to police brutality and racial justice, graphic videos of police shootings have filled users’ timelines. This footage is often critical for bringing legal action against cops who use excessive force. Still, plenty of people following along on social media say it’s too emotionally taxing to be surrounded by so many visuals of black men dying.
Poynter, a nonprofit school for journalism, says there’s no clear cut answer for newsrooms grappling with these questions. According to Poynter’s experts, decisions about publishing extremely graphic images and videos should be guided by several questions: “What is my journalistic purpose? What organizational policies and professional guidelines should I consider? What are my ethical concerns? Who is the audience — and who are the stakeholders affected by my decision? What are my alternatives?”
But ultimately, the power no longer rests solely with the heads of media organizations. With graphic videos now available online, Philip Gourevitch recently argued in the New Yorker, “we are, to some degree, our own editors when we choose to click or not.”