How much, if any, of the shocking sights and sounds should newsrooms report when two people are murdered on live television and the video whips around the world on the Web?
Alison Parker and Adam Ward, two local TV journalists, were gunned down while on the air Wednesday. They were near Roanoke, Va., interviewing local Chamber of Commerce official Vicki Gardner about tourism. Gardner was seriously injured.
Parker, 24, was a reporter. Ward, 27, was a photojournalist. They worked for WDBJ-TV in Roanoke.
Newsrooms, including NPR's, have guidelines for how to handle disturbing content. NPR's start from this position: "We report the news, good and bad."
But, the guidance continues, "we can't be callous" and:
"We also respect our audience. They want the facts. But for many, reading or hearing descriptions will be more than enough. Seeing or hearing disturbing events could leave them too shaken to follow the rest of a story."
Videos of the murders — one from the camera Ward was using and another taken by the killer that he posted on social media — were not put on NPR.org. Editors decided they were too graphic. One image from the killer's camera was posted. It showed the gun in his hand, pointed at Parker, before shots were fired. Editors felt it established how close the gunman got to his victims.
How, then, did NPR decide to broadcast — once — the sounds of the shots that killed Parker and Ward, with screams that could be heard in the background?
The decision came down to this: That six seconds of sound, disturbing as it was, was important. It would help listeners understand the quick, violent nature of the attack.
The discussion then turned to how the sounds would be handled.
It is NPR's position that "listeners should never hear potentially disturbing content without first being told that it's coming."
That's why 20 seconds before the shots were heard in the All Things Considered report, host Audie Cornish said this: "A warning, some of what you'll hear is disturbing." Also, just before the sound of the shots, reporter Sandy Hausman said that "what happened next was shocking."
NPR received a few emails from listeners who didn't think the warnings were adequate and were disappointed that the network chose to include the sounds of the shots. This week's conversation with Weekend Edition's Scott Simon — which explores other topics, including NPR's decision not to post anything from the killer's video of the murders — will likely lead others to express their opinions. We welcome the feedback.
The man who shot Parker, Ward and Gardner was Vester Lee Flanagan, 41, a former reporter at WDBJ who was fired from the station two years ago. He not only posted a video of the killing, but also faxed a long letter to ABC News in which he claimed a number of things, including being discriminated against. Flanagan was black. Both Parker and Ward were white. After fleeing the scene, Flanagan drove to Northern Virginia. As Virginia State Police closed in on his car, Flanagan shot himself. He died a few hours later.
Mark Memmott is NPR's standards and practices editor. He co-hosted The Two Way from its launch in May 2009 through April 2014. Email him at email@example.com.
SCOTT SIMON, HOST:
A fired television reporter, armed with a gun and camera, shot Alison Parker and Adam Ward, two former colleagues, to death this week on live TV. The station stopped the video feed and didn't air video of the murders thereafter. The person they were interviewing was wounded. The gunman uploaded his own unedited video of the murder to Facebook. Those graphic and horrifying images raced around social media and were seen by millions. Mark Memmott, NPR's editor for standards and practices joins us. Mark, thanks for being back with us.
MARK MEMMOTT, BYLINE: You're welcome.
SIMON: How did NPR handle this decision as to whether or not to broadcast the audio?
MEMMOTT: Well, we really had a series of decisions, and it wasn't just the audio we had to think about. And we decided in those early hours not to broadcast the sounds of the shots or put any of the video online. We never did post the video on the website. The only time we broadcast audio of the gunshots was during a long report on All Things Considered. And we felt the sound, if put in proper context and with a warning for listeners, was central to the story.
SIMON: What about the argument in this day and age that the video and audio were already on the web, and for that matter, available from some other news outlets that made different decisions?
MEMMOTT: Yeah, well, the flip side to the argument is that the video and audio are already out there, and we wouldn't be adding much by doing what so many other sites had already done. Better to focus on telling the stories of the victims' lives and what happened on Wednesday with some judicious use of sound and images rather than just copying what other outlets were doing.
SIMON: How do you bring people the news without giving a murderer the kind of attention that might induce other disturbed people to try and become famous by killing someone?
MEMMOTT: Yeah, we do think about that. News outlets can't ignore a story like this. Two people, prominent people in their community, were murdered on television. The killer was on the run. The public needed information about what was going on. The authorities wanted to get the information out to help track down the murderer. I don't know if the decision we and others made will prevent others from doing so or - I mean, this was big news that really needed to be reported.
SIMON: Another question I began to get within an hour of the murders, and I'll bet maybe you did too - Vester Flanagan was the name of the gunman. He worked under the name Bryce Williams at that television station. Why do we seem to mention the name of the gunman almost as much as the two worthy people that he killed?
MEMMOTT: Yeah, I know it seems that way, especially in the first hours in day or so after something like this. Often it's because, you know, there's a search underway. They're looking for a person. You need to get that information out to the public because they may be able to help. There are the logical side stories. Did he have any help? In this case, it appears he didn't. What led him to do this? Who was this person? But then - and this is what seems to happen in these cycles - we and other news outlets start painting pictures of the victims, as well. Their stories get told.
SIMON: Anybody can write any of us these days. I wonder if - what kind of reaction you might have heard or were clued into from listeners.
MEMMOTT: We got a few emails and complaints from listeners about the sound of the gunshots being aired on All Things Considered. And the general message was that they came to NPR because they wanted to hear about the story. They wanted to know more about what happened, but they thought we wouldn't have done that - we wouldn't have played the sound of the gunshots.
We felt that with the proper context given and with a proper warning that those sounds were important to the story because they captured the violence of the moment. They captured the speed with which it all happened, and we apologize if some people didn't appreciate that. But we felt that it was important, and judging from the relatively few number of complaints we got, I think most listeners understood what we're trying to do.
SIMON: Mark Memmott, NPR's senior editor for standards and practices. Thanks so much.
MEMMOTT: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.