Tiffany Jenkins: Sharing of Virginia footage must end

CNN reporter, Brian Todd, and his cameraman, Ray Britch, at the scene where two journalists were killed this morning during a live broadcast on August 26, 2015 in Moneta, Virginia. Picture: Getty Images
CNN reporter, Brian Todd, and his cameraman, Ray Britch, at the scene where two journalists were killed this morning during a live broadcast on August 26, 2015 in Moneta, Virginia. Picture: Getty Images
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FILMING, watching and sharing acts of murder, such as the killing of two journalists in Virginia earlier this week, have become all too common in this age of social media. We should put an end to it, writes Tiffany Jenkins

It’s a sight that is becoming horribly familiar: the murder of innocent individuals on camera. This week in Virginia, Vester Flanagan II, a former TV reporter who went by the name of Bryce Williams, shot and killed a reporter and cameraman during a live interview, after which he uploaded a chilling message to his Twitter account: “I filmed the shooting see Facebook.” An early-morning television programme was transformed by carnage, which was filmed by two people: by the videographer and by the killer on his smart phone.

The calls for gun control were made before the bodies were even cold. But the way Flanagan went about it, filming it all and promoting the footage on social media, points instead to other elements of our culture that warrant reflection. For instance, we might wish to examine the shrill culture of offence, whereby any behaviour in others is understood as a personal slight. In one message, the gunman wrote, by way of explaining his deed, that his “anger has been building steadily” due to racial discrimination and sexual harassment. Internal memos written by staff at the TV station about Flanagan and released to the media show a man who blamed everyone but himself for his difficulties in the workplace.

Or we could look at the narcissism that seems to have encouraged this “selfie” murder and the way the spectacle of violence is so newsworthy. The use of the media in this crime is significant, both Flanagan’s use and, I am sad to observe, ours. It was a shooting that happened as a live broadcast was being recorded, so it was shown on television in real time. That might have been unavoidable. But immediately afterwards, the film of the killings was shown again and again across the media, with many reports advising “viewer discretion” as it contained “graphic content”. Transmitting that footage was not unavoidable. Indeed, why show it at all? Adding a disclaimer, advising caution, does not get around the fact that the video showed a murder – a snuff movie on general release with no pay wall. And it wasn’t just the mainstream media. There were thousands – millions even – of normal people sharing and promoting the footage. It was widely shared on social media: Twitter, Facebook and other sites. You couldn’t escape it. It went viral in the time it takes to fire a gun.

The day after the shootings, too many newspaper front pages showed a photograph of a human being about to be murdered. The pictures of the shootings verged on the pornographic. Publishing them served no public interest. I appreciate that it was news, and that the old adage “If it bleeds, it leads” suggests that the press has always run with the bloody story on the front page. But they didn’t always show the actual moment of death. Little respect was shown in this case for those murdered, for their families and friends. Two innocent people were accorded little dignity in death. Their dreadful final moments, which should be private, were further violated by the copious viewings.

Our excitable, horrified response that clicks, shares and emotes, seems only to encourage such senseless acts. It is a response that colludes with the killers’ desire for fame. Our reaction, which gives these people some kind of infamy, encourages and validates their heinous murders. You have to ask, why do we want to look? What do we gain by watching this stuff?

Closer to home, in Edinburgh this week, Princes Street was brought to a standstill as police tried to talk a man down from the top of the Scott Monument. There were numerous onlookers trying to take pictures of him and the rescue attempt. It’s disturbing that normal people want to film something so awful, and can only experience reality through a screen. It puts all of human life – and death – at a distance.

There are parallels with the shooting in Virginia and the Islamic State (IS) promotional videos featuring mass beheadings. In his book The Lesser Evil, Michael Ignatieff identified 9/11 as an example of the “terrorism of the global spectacular”. What he meant was the spectacle of the event is almost the whole point. And the terrorism of the spectacular has only escalated with IS, which is extraordinarily good at PR. It has a sophisticated grasp of modern media and a high success rate – there is no press office in the West with a comparable media hit rate, especially for the front-page splash. You have to wonder if IS would commit many of their atrocious acts if it were not possible to film them.

Last year, members of IS were shown on camera beheading US journalists James Foley and, on another occasion, Steven Sotloff. Again, the videos were widely distributed. But one major international broadcaster saw sense. Al Jazeera said it had decided not to show any images of Steven Sotloff. “We suggest all media do the same,” Al Jazeera’s public relations account said via Twitter.

The counter-argument is that not showing this footage, whether of beheadings or shootings, risks sanitising the grim reality of the world, and amounts to censorship. So most media outlets claim they tried to strike a balance. IS “would like us to show you the most graphic images on that video, as part of their campaign of terror. We will not”, CBS News anchor Charlie Rose said when he introduced a segment about Sotloff’s death. Instead, CBS showed only video clips. But a clip is still a clip. It is flirting with showing the whole of the footage. It is a curtain raiser.

We need to remove the audience from the spectacle of terror. That means not showing, not watching and not sharing this kind of footage. We don’t need to hear and see everything that happened in all its gory detail to know and understand what happened. We would not be censoring, we would be refusing to participate. Give the victims some dignity. Stop showing the terrorists’ fifth – it only encourages them.