Should we think before we share?

Date 12.11.2015

Matt Walsh, Senior Lecturer in Journalism and Media Studies, talks about the impact of online activity in the wake of the US journalist shootings.

If you have watched the news, picked up a paper or spent any time on Facebook or Twitter in the past 24 hours, you have almost certainly seen two young people being murdered.

The killing of reporter Alison Parker and cameraman Adam Ward by their former colleague Vester Flanagan was transmitted live on US morning television. That was horrific but was happened since has also been deeply reprehensible. The pictures of their deaths were captured not only by Adam Ward as he filmed, but also by Flanagan, filming down the barrel of his gun as he opened fire.

How that video should be used has raised fundamental ethical questions for journalists covering the story.

The UK-based TV news stations uniformly decided not to broadcast the shooting itself but only the images that led up to it and its aftermath. That decision should have been relatively easy to make. Broadcast regulation and a long-standing convention not to show the moment of death would have informed the editorial process.

For most of the newspapers it was a different story. The Sun, the Mirror, the Star, the Times, the Telegraph and theDaily Mail all used stills from Flanagan’s video. Almost all used the same image, of Alison Ward’s terrified face as she realised she had been shot.

This seems to me to be a disgusting failure of editorial judgement and I applaud the newspapers that resisted the temptation to publish the most sensational images.

The most disturbing republication of the videos, though, took place on social media.

Flanagan’s video spread like wildfire via Twitter and Facebook. With most users leaving the default settings unchanged, that meant the video autoplayed on their timeline. One could find oneself watching the murder of another human being without actively choosing to do so. That’s a result that Flanagan clearly hoped to achieve; he wanted his actions and his self-justification to spread as widely as possible.

The growth of these platforms and the increasing prevalence of graphic material mean users increasingly have to make the kind of editorial and ethical choices previously only made by news journalists. Should they rebroadcast the pictures or not?

Perhaps we all need to pause a little longer before hitting the share button.