This post has been updated: 12:40 p.m.
News organizations today are struggling with a common problem in the digital age: How to handle disturbing, horrific video clips?
This morning, Roanoke, Va.-based television station WDBJ was doing a morning feature story on tourism around Smith Mountain Lake in Moneta, Va., when a gunman killed reporter Alison Parker, 24, and cameraman Adam Ward, 27; Vicki Gardner, of the Smith Mountain Lake Chamber of Commerce, suffered a gunshot wound to the back. The episode was caught on live television at 6:45 a.m. for WDBJ viewers.
Video clips of killings quickly filtered across the Internet — making it easy for any outlet to grab it and play it for its audience.
So what to do? On CNN, anchor Carol Costello this morning played the sequence for viewers and announced that the network would be doing so once an hour.
MSNBC has surfaced a number of still images from the video but appears not to be running any of the footage itself. According to an network source, that’s policy: Both NBC News and MSNBC standards mandate freezing video before any shots are fired. That way, the shots and screams aren’t heard. A slightly less rigorous standard applies to digital platforms, where the sound of only the first shot is allowable, according to the source.
Fox News has also refrained from running the video on air, sticking to still images. The network is evaluating its decisions about the video, and the approach could change as the story continues to progress, according to a Fox News spokesperson.
The New York Times linked to the video in its main story, noting that it was “disturbing.” That link goes to a YouTube video under this title: “Live Shooting WDBJ wow!!” Matt Purdy, a deputy executive editor for the Times, writes to the Erik Wemple Blog via e-mail, “We decided to link to the video rather than embed it on our site as a way of giving our readers the option of viewing it — with a warning about its sensitive nature — rather than forcing a disturbing video on anyone who came to our site.”
The Huffington Post chose a different tack, embedding the video in its main story on the attack, complete with this warning: “This video features images which some may find distressing.” Ryan Grim, the Huffington Post’s Washington bureau chief, tells the Erik Wemple Blog, “[T]he fact that the shooting happened on air is part of its news value.”
The Erik Wemple Blog has contacted other outlets and will update this post as responses arrive.
As for WDBJ itself, General Manager Jeffrey Marks said this morning in a report on the death of his colleagues that his station was staying away from the footage: “We are choosing not to run the video of that right now because, frankly, we don’t need to see it again, and our staff doesn’t need to see it again, but we will do full reporting on it later.”
Authorities later identified the suspect as Vester Lee Flanagan, a former WDBJ employee who reported for the station under the name of Bryce Williams. A Twitter account under that name carried a posting of an apparent first-person video of the shooting, and Twitter quickly suspended the account.
On Fox News, host Gretchen Carlson discussed the shooter’s video and told viewers, “We will not show that video on Fox, as it is truly disturbing.”