It’s a chilling video from a horrific tragedy.
As Alison Parker, a reporter for Virginia TV station WDBJ did an on-air interview near Roanoke, Virginia, a gunman approached her and shot her in cold blood. Also murdered was WDBJ photographer, Adam Ward, whose camera panned to their killer as the tragedy unfolded.
Because the broadcast was live, so was the shooting. Because the shooting was of a reporter and her photographer, it was captured on video. What’s more, police say the alleged gunman, identified as Vester Lee Flanagan, a former employee of the TV station who appeared on air as Bryce Williams, himself uploaded video of the tragedy to the Internet.
Flanagan’s video was pulled down, his account suspended, but the original report and tragedy video remains online. Now, because we live in the digital age — where videos are uploaded to the Internet and spread like wildfire — there exists a pocket of the web where people can go to see two people murdered.
Some news sites are sharing the video with warnings, others with click-baity headlines meant to draw in looky-loos who want to rubberneck a tragedy.
Regardless, today thousands upon thousands of folks are sitting in front of their computers and cellphones, watching as two people die. People who were loved and who are being mourned today, even as their deaths are being treated as nothing more than viral oddities, like a cute kitty cat or a giggly baby.
It’s easy enough when you’re staring at a screen no bigger than your hand, sitting in your office, ignoring the pile of paperwork you should have done two hours ago to forget that what you are watching isn’t entertainment. It wasn’t cooked up in a Hollywood studio or even a vlogger’s basement.
What you are watching is the last few moments in the lives of real people.
People with families. People with friends.
The virality of this video may have been inevitable, but it brings up a question of fairness to Parker and Ward and to their families and loved ones.
Arguably, there is news value in sharing video of this shooting. The incident marks yet another tragedy in a long string of violent gun crimes in our nation — and yet another in the South, which has already proven to be the area of the country where these sorts of incidents are most prevalent. Shocking reporting on gun crime is what many activists say is needed in order to shake American politicians up and force them to act.
If someone is moved enough by seeing two deaths to enact legislation that could save countless lives, some would say it’s worth it.
Surely, the same was said when video went viral showing Walter Scott, a black man pulled over in North Charleston for a non-functioning brake light, being chased down and shot. The man charged in Scott’s murder is Michael Slager, a white police officer who is currently in jail awaiting trial. Outrage over the senseless killing — fueled by the video’s spread on the Internet — has been credited with helping the Scott family get justice and bring more national attention to the #BlackLivesMatter cause.
Good came of the video. And yet, Scott’s mom was clearly hurt by it as well. As Judy Scott told Good Morning America, “When I looked at that tape, that was the most horrible thing I’ve ever seen. I almost couldn’t look at it. To see my son running defenselessly being shot, it just tore my heart to pieces.”
Not what you’re thinking when you’re sitting in a conference room, your phone in your lap, as you goof off during a boring presentation, scrolling through your Facebook feed, watching random videos, is it? This is the reality of death that comes on camera, a reality that’s so easily forgotten in the digital disconnect that exists between us and the screen.
Sadly, the person mindlessly watching that viral video with little thought to the person it affects is likely the lesser of two evils in a world where folks log onto “livestreams of suicide attempts” for their own sick pleasure, where these sorts of videos allow would-be shooters and other sordid types to live out some sort of tragic fantasy life. They may be (hopefully are) in the minority, but they’re a consideration too when news organizations, bloggers and regular Joes and Janes decide to hit “upload” or “share” on these sorts of videos.
As a society, we may have the ability and the technology to make these videos accessible to the masses, and the protection of free speech to do so. But we also have a moral responsibility to consider the human cost in doing so.