A shooting in a Texas church left three dead Sunday and countless others reeling — not only because they witnessed it in real life, but because the events were captured on a livestream feed of the service, which was then replayed across the major news networks. But was that replaying ethical?
On CBS and ABC, the video’s visual footage stopped playing when the suspected gunman started shooting, but the audio — the pop, pop, pop and the screaming — continued. CNN obscured the individuals who were shot but kept the footage rolling. Images of churchgoers running and diving under pews played out in real time. On Fox News, the footage was barely shown at all. Instead, a few frames from the clip aired while hosts from “Fox and Friends” described how volunteer security guards took down the suspect, likely saving lives in the process. NBC handled the violent video in a similar fashion, choosing to show freeze frames and largely relying upon anchor descriptions.
Representatives for the networks did not immediately respond to requests for comment on their decision making. But each newsroom had to make an editorial choice on how much of the video to show.
Nicole Kraft, associate professor of clinical communication with a focus on journalism at the Ohio State University, told TheWrap that the choice whether to air the clip is part of “this constant struggle” the media has always faced: “How do you balance the needs of the community and the needs of the individual?”
Kraft acknowledged that as more immediate imagery has become available, like footage of kids leaving schools after shootings in single-file lines with their hands above their heads or even images of the Boston Marathon bombing or 9/11, it’s become part of newsrooms’ strategy for getting eyeballs on their content. It also shows, however, “exactly the level of tragedy that was dealt by another human hand.”
“We need people to understand what happens when this type of violence is perpetrated against other people,” she said of the need for visual elements, “but by the same token, we’re also normalizing it and saying, ‘Well, this happened again and this is the imagery you’re going to see again.”
Before the internet and the age of sharing and steaming, news editors were the “gatekeepers,” she said. They used their judgment to determine whether the public should see something and “took that responsibility very seriously.” Now, there are less questions of whether to show something and more questions of how to show it.
Asked how she would have handled footage like the livestream of Sunday’s shooting, Kraft told TheWrap, “It always comes down to what serves the needs of the other community and the readership. I’m a big believer in utilitarianism, and( you know, the needs of the many, and sometimes we expose things that others would want to keep private. So, the individuals may not want circumstances exposed, but the community needs to see them. In the case of a shooting like this, I can’t really see any reason why we need to be visually confirming for people that other people were shot and to see this in a house of worship.”
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