As if the on-air killings of TV station employees Alison Parker and Adam Ward weren’t shocking enough, says Hannah Dunleavy, the media’s hunger to exploit the footage sends a dangerous message.
One of the first things I saw after the on-air slaying of Alison Parker and Adam Ward yesterday was a photograph of the pair of them smiling. It was tweeted by their employer, WDBJ-TV, with a note that this was how they should be remembered, not by watching them die on the live footage which had already made its way to YouTube.
Within a few hours the story had developed, as their killer, a former colleague, uploaded his own video to social media. The Washington Post – which, in a depressing sign of the regularity of such events, had not made the shooting the main story on its website for hours – ran a piece full of pleas from concerned parties asking that people not share or retweet the footage.
Had they known that the front pages of newspapers in this country might be plastered with screenshots taken from the killer’s footage, showing the last moments of a young woman’s life, they might have added: “And to our colleagues in the UK, please don’t be dicks.”
Gun control in the US, or the lack of it, will always be an uncomfortably fascinating subject here or indeed in any country which does not bow so readily at the altar of firepower. I get it; it’s a centuries-long cultural phenomenon, an unalienable right to arm yourself which supersedes all evidence of its efficacy to provide a safe environment. And, sadly, it seems nothing is ever shocking enough to change things.
“After today, what potential killers know is, if they film it, some media outlets will be unscrupulous enough to make money out of it.”
That is not the point anyone is making with those front pages though, is it? They’re saying, “Cop a load of these people getting shot.” And if you go to the Sun’s website you can watch the killer’s “chilling video”. Chilling, a word that’s as unnecessary here as adjectives in front of porn. And used with similar intent.
The truth is, it’s very hard to run a newspaper without offending someone. My parents’ local free paper is currently involved in a spat with a group of concerned residents objecting to their reporting of an inquest about the death of a child. It was cruel, the family say, and it brought up the trauma of the death again. Inquests are in the public interest, the newspaper says, and it’s our right to report them. (They are, as it is believed that everyone who knew a person should be able to know the manner of their death and that, if possible, something might be learned from them.)
So much of journalism is a moral dilemma. People are found guilty of something despicable every day and at home there’s a wife, or a mother, or children, who have to get up and face their neighbours and colleagues knowing everyone’s just read the front page of the Local Gazette. But you can’t ignore court cases because it might upset the families. It’s in the public interest.
Here, however, I can’t see the grey area, the moral dilemma, the public interest. In fact, I see the very opposite of the public interest.
“Maybe you’ve seen the front pages already and they disgust you. Maybe they don’t bother you. Maybe you haven’t seen them, but you plan to seek them out immediately.”
In recent years, experts on mass shootings have made several requests of the media not to focus on the killer, but instead to focus on the victims. By using their name over and over again, by printing their picture, their background, their manifesto, the media give the killer the infamy they crave. And while they might be dead and unable to appreciate their ‘victory’, the next disgruntled, alienated or angry man will see it as a validation for their reasoning that the world really should be paying more attention to them. And after today, what potential killers know is, if they film it, some media outlets will be unscrupulous enough to make money out of it.
Maybe you’ve seen the front pages already and they disgust you. Maybe they don’t bother you. Maybe you haven’t seen them, but you plan to seek them out immediately. Maybe you’ve already watched the killer’s footage and wonder what the problem is.
In truth, I suppose, we are the problem. I worked for newspapers long enough that I know nothing ever got put on a front page unless people thought it would sell copies. And maybe today they’ll be proved right. But if they are, this tragedy will have taught us as much about our culture as it has about America’s.1938 Views
Hannah Dunleavy is the deputy editor of Standard Issue. She likes whisky and not having to run anywhere.