Should media show on-air killings?

Story highlights

  • Media have struggled with whether to show on-air Virginia killings, or how much to show
  • CNN Opinion asked commentators to weigh in on the issue

(CNN)After two journalists in Virginia were shot dead on air Wednesday, news organizations and other media faced a decision: With dramatic video of a crime available --some of it shot by the killer himself -- were they obliged to put it on air and publish it? Some did, in a limited way, others refused altogether and still others splashed images of the shooting on the front page. CNN Opinion invited commentators to weigh in: Should news organizations and other media outlets show images of an on-air killing?

Mel Robbins: We must bear witness

Yes the media should report and show the on-air killings, with a warning so viewers can change the channel if they wish.
    The reason for airing it is simple: It is the truth. It is horrible, but it happened. The media should not shield you from it; its job is to report it. It's your job to choose whether to bear witness or change the channel.
    Mel Robbins
    And there's another reason, still. We owe it to the victims not to turn our eyes away from the horror.
    I don't want to witness a murder or see a dead body, yet some of the difficult images to see are historically the most potent and important for us to see. Should we have shielded ourselves from the images of concentration camps, or the horror dealt by the Khmer Rouge? The answer is no. Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel reminded us that "for the dead and the living, we must bear witness."
    We must bear witness so that it scars us. Perhaps if we witness these atrocities and confront the actual truth of violence, we as a society would be moved to do something to stop it. You can hear journalists talk about the Charlie Hebdo attack or the recent shootings in the Louisiana movie theater, but until you see what the failure of gun control looks like, you will not be scarred.
    Graphic public service announcements about texting and driving or drinking and driving serve a purpose: to see the imagery in your mind so your behavior will change.
    The chief legal counsel at ABC has seen the video, and ABC has decided to shield you from it, he explained in a series of tweets.
    He wrote:
    "I'll never forget horrific video I just watched of #WDBJ shooting from killer's perspective. We have but @Mediaite will not run."
    "We will run video leading up to shooting but not the part that just scarred me for life."
    He makes a point, although maybe not the one he intended: Imagery makes the truth sink deep. If we don't show it, it may be seared into the minds of the survivors and witnesses, but not scarred into the minds of the public. That's why pleas of families after Newtown, Aurora, Columbine and Charleston have not been enough to make America do something about it.
    Alison Parker's father is now calling for gun control, but too many will have already changed the channel.
    Mel Robbins is a CNN commentator, legal analyst, best-selling author and keynote speaker. In 2014, she was named outstanding news talk radio host by the Gracie Awards.

    Juliette Kayyem: Airing killings makes media a tool

    What is the news value of a snuff film? Essentially, that is what many of us saw Wednesday. The debate about whether news organizations should air the video seems to me to be relatively straightforward, if we draw on the lessons from national security.
    Juliette Kayyem
    Simply, terrorist organizations use social media and video to show beheadings and other murders, and news agencies rightfully do not air these because they provide no value, they are gruesome, and most importantly, they give the terrorists what they want: a sense of fame, a chance to recruit and a platform that wouldn't otherwise be available.
    The killer in this case, Bryce Williams, is no different; his tactics are familiar. He planned his attack meticulously. He didn't need to do so -- after all, he could have just shot them. His detailed planning was for one reason only: The visuals were part of the plan.
    The visual shock was central to the violence itself. It was a way for him to seek a fame he had so coveted from the on-air job at which he'd failed. As news organizations have determined in their decisions not to air ISIS beheading films, they become a tool for the murderous, rather than just a fact finder, if they choose to air such violence.
    I did not watch the videos Wednesday. I have never watched an ISIS beheading film. I know what they are. And so do viewers. We may not be able to stop violence in our nation or the world, but we can at least refuse to play in these murder games.
    Juliette Kayyem, a CNN national security analyst, is a professor at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government, a former assistant secretary in the U.S. Department of Homeland Security and founder of Kayyem Solutions, a security consulting firm. She is also the host of the "Security Mom" podcast and author of the forthcoming book "Security Mom: An Unclassified Guide to Protecting our Homeland and Your Home."

    Sahara Byrne: Showing violence can prime aggression in others

    How should journalists portray acts of violence to best inform the public, while not instigating further aggression? It's one of the toughest questions journalists face, and sadly it has become more and more common. It is unlikely that healthy people will spontaneously commit an act of violence in response to something they see on the news, but the social science on the subject can explain why this situation might occur, however rarely.
    Sahara Byrne
    First, seeing media violence "primes," or brings to the top of the mind, ideas that people may be pushing back -- thoughts they have about committing violence. We know that exposing people to acts of violence in the media can make thoughts related to violence more accessible, and therefore more closely linked to behavior.
    Second, if portrayals of media violence are perceived by a viewer to be rewarded, that viewer may be more likely to model it. For example, if a person sees attention bestowed on an act of violence in the news (tweets, Facebook likes, TV coverage, news stories, fame) and believes that attention is a form of reward, he or she may become more likely to see violence as a potential way to receive similar rewards.
    Finally, seeing violence in our news over and over desensitizes viewers, lowering their physiological responses and reducing the likelihood they will turn away or avoid it. So what is the solution for journalists who want to be ethical but are fighting for ratings? Journalists are people who need to make educated decisions on what they can personally live with as a consequence of providing what the public might think it needs or craves.
    Sahara Byrne is an associate professor of media communication at Cornell University. Her research has looked at how youths respond to interventions aimed to reduce negative effects of the media, including efforts to reduce the effects of media violence.

    Dean Obeidallah: Why the media give us what we want

    It's hard not to see a connection between the reality show culture we now live in and the need that so many of us seem to have to watch the footage of the horrific shooting of reporter Alison Parker and cameraman Adam Ward.
    Dean Obeidallah
    Viewing the tragic and the outrageous has become the norm. The more shocking, offensive, extreme, etc., the more we will want to see it; the more we will talk about it and the more we will share it on social media.
    I'm not above this because I, too, watched the video of the shooting online. In the past, I don't think I would have, but my sensibilities have changed, along with those of the rest of us. I found the video disturbing and even felt dirty because I was giving the shooter exactly what he wanted. But that didn't stop me from watching it a second time, and a third.
    How can we fault the media for showing us images of what they know will get our attention? After all, the media is a business. The media outlets are simply serving us up what we crave. If there's a problem, it lies with us, not them.
    Dean Obeidallah, a former attorney, is the host of SiriusXM's weekly program "The Dean Obeidallah Show." He is a columnist for The Daily Beast, editor of the politics blog The Dean's Report and co-director of the documentary "The Muslims Are Coming!" Follow him on Twitter: @TheDeansreport.

    Jay Rosen: Let's not kid ourselves

    Get real. Nothing is going to change because people are upset about the media showing the Virginia killings. Maybe a few more TV hosts will refuse to say the killer's name or show his picture. Maybe some extraordinarily gruesome footage won't be shown as often because of the backlash factor. Maybe the victims will get a little more time, the shooter a little less. Maybe social media will take down the pages faster. Minor shifts like this may occur, demonstrating "sensitivity," but the fundamentals will not change.
    Jay Rosen
    Cable TV will still go wall-to-wall. The tabloids will do their thing. The morning news shows will all feature "the tragedy," making a mockery of that word. It will be a huge story for a few days, and right there the incentive for the killers will remain. The guns will be just as plentiful, the debate about them just as hopeless. And somewhere in that script will be these little ethics seminars with college professors that media producers love to stage while they're trying to reach the victims' families to get them to come on air.
    "If you're looking for coverage of the shootings in Virginia, you can find it on our website in black and white. No pictures, no video, no TV. Now in other news. ..." That is what it would take to alter the situation, not at just one station, but across the media industry. That is nowhere on the horizon. But this is: "Jay, I'm doing a story on the shootings in Virginia. What are the ethics of autoplay? I'm on deadline, call me back. ..."
    Jay Rosen, a media critic, is a professor of journalism at New York University. He is the author of PressThink, a weblog about journalism.

    Roxanne Jones: This video cannot be contained

    The video is chilling and almost too painful to watch. Two young journalists -- reporter Alison Parker, 24, and cameraman Adam Ward, 27-- are practicing their craft, conducting a routine interview. It's the type of interview I've done hundreds if not thousands of times. The last thing on your mind is that a crazed gunman is standing by to kill you. Bryce Williams was clearly a disturbed, angry man who needed help.
    Roxanne Jones
    But the tragic circumstances surrounding these deaths do not change our job as journalists: to report the news as it happens even when it's ugly. We can no longer try to "shield" the public from news we deem too heinous to show -- whether it's one of our own being beheaded by extremists, a local murder scene or the Virginia shootings this week. Like it or not, this video cannot be contained.
    Thanks to social media and technology, the decision on "news that is fit to print," or broadcast is no longer in the hands of a few lofty news executives. The public now has the power to decide what type of news it wants to consume. And I have always believed that we journalists do our jobs to serve and inform the public. The video must be shown.
    Roxanne Jones, a founding editor of ESPN Magazine and former vice president at ESPN, has worked as a producer and as a reporter at the New York Daily News and The Philadelphia Inquirer. She was named a 2010 Woman of the Year by Women in Sports and Events. Jones is a co-author of "Say It Loud: An Illustrated History of the Black Athlete" and CEO of the Push Marketing Group.

    Jeff Yang: When will the media learn?

    The WDBJ shooting occurred at the horrible nexus of mental illness, easy availability of firearms and our national obsession with the sensationalistic coverage of violence. The first two factors can be changed with legislation -- if we have the will (though if the death of dozens of children at Sandy Hook didn't move us on psychiatric intervention and gun control, nothing ever can).
    Jeff Yang
    But the last of these is in the control of the media establishment. Showing wall to wall images of the Virginia killing and the killer, as some in media have done, is a mistake; it isn't about what's newsworthy, it's about ratings and clicks. Treating mass murder as a reality show can only impede law enforcement, generate hysteria in the viewing public and encourage copycat killers.
    Consider that in some ways the killing is the result of the ongoing sensationalization of spree shooters. Why? The killer in this case apparently wanted to die in a way that made as big a splash as possible, committing his act on camera, leaving a "manifesto" and even live tweeting his actions.
    In his notes left at the scene, he cited several widely publicized spree killers (the Columbine pair and especially Seung-Hui Cho, the Virginia Tech shooter) as "heroes" and role models.
    There's a way to cover these terrible events that doesn't elevate the killers into celebrities. Ironically, the coverage already being given to this latest horror shows that the media still hasn't learned that lesson.
    Jeff Yang is a columnist for The Wall Street Journal Online and contributes frequently to radio shows, including Public Radio International's "The Takeaway" and WNYC's "The Brian Lehrer Show." He is the co-author of "I Am Jackie Chan: My Life in Action" and editor of the graphic novel anthologies "Secret Identities" and "Shattered."

    Barbie Zelizer: Journalists need to resolve the debate

    In journalism, images of people about to die are nothing new.
    Captured by nearby photographers, we've all seen them: A soldier in the Spanish civil war, a starving Sudanese child, a suspected Viet Cong fighter, a student at a pro-democracy rally in Iran.
    We also know images taken by perpetrators as they kill—trophy shots from the Nazis or Cambodia's Pol Pot regime. Most recently, ISIS's display of captives about to be beheaded stirred outrage.
    News outlets display these images, sometimes with delay, offering cautionary notes about what is shown, blocking and filtering parts of the images. Discussions about why and how to use or not use graphic images come up repeatedly. Because graphic news images require prompt action, their use develops on a case by case basis, reflecting the political, technological and moral impulses of the time.
    Barbie Zelizer
    Yet, it's hard for journalists to resolve the debate. Should they be sensitive to the victim, or provide full coverage of what happened? We would not expect news stories to exclude information because it is insensitive, so why would we expect a different standard for images?
    The ambivalence over graphic images needs to be settled.
    Today's news is driven more than ever before by images. Politicians, military officials, religious leaders, news executives, human rights workers and bereaved families all weigh in on what pictures to show. It's no wonder that U.S. viewers were spared pictures of the victims of 9/11, yet given explicit photos of the casualties from the Japanese tsunami sometime later.
    The public seems more squeamish about images today. The horrors of the concentration camps of World War II were shown widely previously. But no mass killing or genocide since has generated similar coverage.
    The shooting in Virginia is tragic. Journalists will have to figure out the right approach beyond a case-by-case basis. They should do so before the next round of graphic and horrible images surfaces.
    Barbie Zelizer is the Raymond Williams professor of communication at the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Pennsylvania. A former journalist, she is the author of "About To Die: How News Images Move the Public" and "Remembering to Forget: Holocaust Memory Through the Camera's Eye."