Virginia TV shootings take us to a new level of media immersion, intrusion

The Sun's David Zurawik talks about the shooting of a news crew on live TV, on WYPR FM's 'Take on Television.'

It is too soon to coherently sort the messages and meanings of the tragic shootings of TV reporter Alison Parker and photographer Adam Ward in Virginia this morning.

But the media aspects of the story, which are compounding by the hour, demand some on-the-run discussion.


Beyond the old-media struggle by CNN to show or not show video of the shootings at first, there have already been myriad digital developments that complicate editorial decision-making and police work exponentially.

The person believed to be the killer, identified by police as a disgruntled former employee of the station, was live tweeting about his history at the station and uploading video to his Facebook page of the shooting itself as he fled the scene. He was identified as Vester Lee Flanagan, who formerly appeared on air as a weekend anchorman, under the name Bryce Williams.


This is the media ecosystem in which we live - alleged killers upload video of their crime and make their case via Twitter as they flee police.

Both Twitter and Facebook shut the words and images down soon after their publication, but not before they were captured by others and flooded social media.

I have been writing extensively about the way citizen video and social media have been changing our lives in such matters as police-community relations and the backstage lives of celebrities, but this is another major step by society toward total media immersion. Our lives - and deaths - played out on screens within screens with few if any filters.

As I watched CNN's early coverage of the deaths of Parker, 24, and Ward, 27, who were gunned down as they were doing an interview for the morning news show on WDBJ-TV, the tension in the cable channel's control room was obvious.

As Carol Costello took over the story at 9 a.m. on the anchor desk, CNN was not showing the video of Parker getting shot. Viewers were told it was available online, and it was - everywhere.

But within the hour, Costello told viewers CNN was going to show the video.

"But only once," she said after giving viewers multiple warnings so they would have plenty of time to step away or turn the TV off if they didn't want to see.

But CNN did show it again after that, when staff were able to freeze a frame that showed the killer with his gun pointing down at Ward after the photographer was on the ground.

That image surely helped police identify the man they are calling a "suspect" as I write this.

I am not criticizing CNN at all for showing the video. I liked their rolling coverage, and I thought senior media correspondent Brian Stelter offered some good work alongside Costello's steady anchoring. I think Stelter may have been the first one to notice the frame with the gunman's face in it as he watched the original video of the shooting on a laptop at the anchor desk.

And I am glad that the channel was at least wrestling with whether to show show video of people being murdered on air.

Let's be honest, that is what many of us watched today: murder on videotape.


Once upon a time, it would have been shocking to say that.

But don't blame CNN or any other cable channel for showing it. The images are everywhere - so everywhere, I would argue it is impossible for them not to permeate your consciousness in some way even if you decide not to watch them.

This is what  happens when technology outraces analysis - and it takes over the culture before we have decided if and how we want it used.

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