Murders of VA journalists evokes discussion of how reporters cover tragic events

Published: Aug. 26, 2015 at 9:40 PM CDT|Updated: Sep. 2, 2015 at 9:42 PM CDT
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BIRMINGHAM, AL (WBRC) - As loved ones and coworkers mourn the deaths of two Virginia journalists, Alison Parker and Adam Ward, fellow journalists across the country are grappling with how we approach covering such terrible events.

Parker and Ward were shot and killed during a live broadcast Wednesday morning by a former coworker, Vester Flanagan.

One of the conversations we've had in our own newsroom on Wednesday is how to cover such horrific murders, like those of Parker and Ward, without giving murderers the infamy they may be seeking.

It's tough when it involves our profession and also in our effort to report the news fully, yet responsibly.

Journalists have to weigh what it means to share video from such crimes and weigh how we talk about suspects. Based on the information Flanagan aka Bryce Williams shared on social media and with other news outlets, he wanted attention for this act. So how do we, as journalists, tell the story without giving him undue fame?

It was a similar situation journalists faced recently with the Boston Marathon bombings; with Dylan Roof who is charged with killing nine people at the church in South Carolina; and with Timothy McVeigh, the Oklahoma City bomber.

You could even go back as far as John Wilkes Booth, the man that shot President Abraham Lincoln. We know his name because it was so prominent in the media, even back then.

University of Alabama Journalism professor Dr. Chandra Clark said coverage is a challenge, but journalists strive to get it right.

"I think you have to really focus in on the victims and who suffers here. I've been involved in stories in the past where that's been the case and we've always made a conscious decision to make sure the victims are remembered about that story and not glorify the suspect in the situation. And that's one of the things I was proud of today to look online and I kept seeing their pictures, the victims and not the suspects. I kind of had to look for pictures of the suspect," she said.

What makes this case even more disturbing is how Flanagan, a journalist himself, posted a video of himself committing the crime to his Twitter and Facebook accounts.

Clark points out that as a reporter, Flanagan knew what we in the media would be aware of: the live shot and social media. Those are all media we use every day to tell stories.

But even in this new age of technology, Clark said journalists can't lose sight of putting accuracy first and being aware of who they are serving.

"I think that's always a challenge because the video is so easily accessible now and people want to see it...they want to see the images. And some of that is out of the control of citizens but it's totally in control of the media because we are that censorship two weigh out what the public may need to see and may not. And it says a lot about how the organization handles those kinds of stories on the social media aspect and on the air," Clark said.

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