This morning brings horrifying news about someone shooting two Virginia journalists in cold blood while they were doing a live interview on a TV newscast. It’s so shocking and senseless that I have trouble summoning words for it. The journalists were young and doing what I did myself for years as a reporter — standing there, focused on the source and asking questions, oblivious to whatever was going on around them. Being a journalist can leave you in prone positions, and it’s important to remember that the people who do this job are taking risks as part of the deal even when it’s an innocuous story.
I cope by going into journalist mode, and by being a teacher. I don’t want to add much commentary about the day’s events, but instead I want to talk about several things I noticed while tracking the story on Twitter this morning. It’s how I’m making sense of the news this morning, and it’s a chance for my students to learn and grow. No hot takes here. This isn’t a traffic grab; it’s therapy.
Breaking news has always been hard to think through, given how chaotic the environment can be and how fluid the information is. But social media makes the process even harder.
Official sources in breaking news environments
A tale of two tweets from reporters. Note the time stamps:
— Jamie Forzato (@jamieforzato) August 26, 2015
Virginia State Police say they are NOT in pursuit of suspect from this morning's live TV shooting in Roanoke @nbcwashington
— Tisha Thompson (@TishaOnTV) August 26, 2015
We have two potentially contradictory pieces of information here, both from public officials. In journalism school we’re taught that official sources are quotable on the record. Getting information from someone who is publicly accountable usually is gold. Hearing information from the mayor about city happenings is considered more solid (if not confirmed) than hearing it from a random citizen
Breaking news environments are tougher, though, especially in the age of social media. We saw this with the Gabby Giffords shooting a few years ago when a source in the local sheriff’s department confirmed that Giffords had died even though it turned out later to be untrue. But before the latter could come to light, NPR reported that it had confirmed Giffords’ death. It became a classic case study on why we should slow down and confirm things from people directly connected to the incident.
In the Twitter above, you have the governor. Pretty official! But if you stop and consider the information and source, there is reason for skepticism. The governor likely didn’t speak to the people doing the alleged manhunt; he likely got that information second, third, fourth, fifth hand — information passed up the chain from people on the ground through administrators and aides. It’s probably safe to say Terry McAuliffe isn’t intentionally lying, but whether the information is accurate is a tougher call. I think the reporter handled this one pretty well. She put the information in quotes and attributed, which means it’s clear it’s coming from McAuliffe. I would have added to the tweet to alert my audience that breaking news situations are very fluid, and that this information hasn’t been confirmed separately. But Twitter is hard for breaking news because of space limitations.
Then, not 50 minutes later, the second tweet shows one arm of law enforcement saying they’re not involved in the pursuit. What could this mean? It could mean a lot of things. Other groups might claim jurisdiction (such as the FBI), or it could mean that the suspect has left Virginia and they can’t pursue anymore. But my skepticism is raised about the first tweet now, because you’d think in a manhunt the state police would be involved in a tertiary way at least. The second tweet casts potential doubt on the first, or they might actually be compatible. The point is, it’s hard to know.
What I tell students is that breaking news on Twitter is great, but you must be careful. Take your usual skepticism (which better be high to begin with!) and multiply it tenfold. Question everything you read or hear, and make sure that before you pass anything on you feel pretty certain that what you’re sharing is true. The stakes are much higher in terms of your credibility in those moments.
Sharing graphic video
The other issue that cropped up was the use of video. Again, this incident happened on a live broadcast; it’s already out there in some way, and in a world of DVRs, digital rewind, and Vine/Instavideo, people in public are going to re-air the moment because they can. But journalists still need to be judicious about what to do with the video.
On Twitter this morning there emerged three schools of thought on whether TV outlets should re-air the video of the shooting:
- Don’t re-air: Out of courtesy for the victims and their families, don’t show it. Don’t give the shooter a moment of glory either.
- Re-air: Journalists shouldn’t sanitize violence. By doing so it spares us the horrific reality of these shootings and leaves us at a policy inertia at a time when the gun control issue is a hot debate. In addition, journalists shouldn’t be the ones choosing what their audiences can choose to see; leave it up to the viewers.
- Re-air with exceptions: This one is all over the map. CNN inexplicably decided to only show it every hour (and how many public places have CNN on?). Others argued to publish the video but be conscious of disabling autoplay features. I ran into this second one. I shared a link that had a video that wasn’t autoplaying on my Mac, but then discovered that it was autoplaying on mobile. Others said publish it but with giant content warnings.
The Radio TV News Directors Association has a good set of ethics guidelines, particularly the graphic content section. I don’t consider these the authority, but they are excellent things to consider as you choose between those three options above. If nothing else, it’s a good check on you as you weigh your options.
My gut says go with the third choice. Put giant warnings in front of the video, and no auto-play. Reporters and journalists have the choice of how to air, but it’s difficult to argue with the idea that somebody in the public will post these things if we don’t. We should at least be making sure that people can trust the video is verified as part of the journalistic vetting process. The auto-play issue in particular is thorny because it’s hard for people to avoid, something Facebook users found out today when they were unable to avoid the video.
How good to I feel about that third option? Not very. I can be persuaded. Showing death on video is a serious thing, especially when it’s a criminal shooting done in cold blood. It’s a reminder that newsroom ethics, particularly in breaking news environments, involve a whole lot of discussion and argument, and the results are often messy (and sometimes involves incorrect decisions). You have to slow down and resist the urge to post right away.
Citizen first-person shooter
Complicating this discussion is news that broke about 11:15 am, that the suspected shooter had a Twitter and Facebook account and was posting their motive as the manhunt was supposedly happening. About five minutes later, he posted two videos of him allegedly filming himself doing the shootings. It was horrifying.
Again, news organizations faced a difficult choice. The videos were out there. What is the journalist’s responsibility?
The killer is filming murder with goal of posting social media & get wall-to-wall coverage. Not first. Not last. Stop doing their bidding.
— Zeynep Tufekci (@zeynep) August 26, 2015
This one felt a bit more clear-cut to me. The first-person perspective is less about documenting with a TV camera and more about glorifying the act. To air this is to give the alleged suspect what he seems to want: attention and glorification. Not airing it is the easier call, but it also becomes imperative to not spread the tweets or information about the suspect’s alleged account.
Tufecki is right. We talk about social media fame a lot, but it can be a tool for entertainment or for despicable acts. There will be copycat versions of this crime, and as media consumers we have a responsibility to not spread this kind of thing.