Virginia shooting: Life and death on social media

On August 26, news reporter Alison Parker and photojournalist Adam Ward of WDBJ were killed on live air by Vester Lee Flanagan.

Questions:

1. With Virginia shooting we saw that shooter was tweeting, posting of Facebook. Is it something surprising or is it maybe a sing on times when we live our lives (and creepily also our deaths?) also on social media?

2. How the media should devote air time/print space to this crime. If you for example think if media should show the video of the murder, or not. Because we have to report it, of course, but how to avoid (if it is even possible) the situation in which we are giving the shooter too much space and we are basically helping him to achieve the fame. Could the extensive media coverage also lead to copycat crimes?

Answers:

Marianne Colbran, Visiting Fellow in Criminology, London School of Economics

1. In the cases of many ‘revenge’ murders, there is the desire on the part of the murderer to both claw back some power and to achieve some level of notoriety/celebrity. And in the era of social media, the murderer doesn’t even have to wait to carry out killings before achieving that fame – even before he has fired a shot, he or she knows that the attention of the world is focussed upon him or her by tweeting instantaneously on Twitter. So no, I don’t think it’s surprising, given what seems to be the motives for this shooting, that the murderer should take to Twitter as a bid for attention and momentary celebrity.

2. In the era of You Tube, Twitter and other social media, video footage of this crime is going to leak out whether or not the mainstream media show such footage or not, so I think the issue of whether or not to avoid giving the killer too much space is irrelevant – there is simply no way to control information being disseminated through social media.

In terms of coverage, I remember a discussion by David Green in his 2008 book, When Children Kill Children and his comparison of the press treatment of two child-on-child murders – that of James Bulger in the UK in 1993 and of Silje Redergard in 1994, comparing and contrasting the punitive focus in the UK on Bulger’s two child killers with the press handling of the Redergard case – drawing on the views of experts to contextualise the case in the light of what is known about the rarity of such events and to deal with the damage that has been wrought.

So in short, a concentration on seeking expert views on  contextualising the killing and emphasising its rarity and dealing with the damage wrought on victims and the community  is probably a more responsible and less sensationalist way of reporting such a crime, than focussing too heavily on the perpetrator and sensationalising his story.

As for extensive media coverage leading to possible copycat crime, again, it’s almost impossible to say whether this might be the case. But I certainly think that less sensationalist coverage focusing on the killer and more coverage of the context and of damage to victims’ families and their community seems to be a more morally responsible way to report such crimes.

Kimya Dennis, Criminologist and Sociologist, Assistant Professor, Coordinator of Criminal Studies, Salem College

1. The August 26, 2015 shooting of TV journalists on live air has shocked much of the nation and the world.  The chilling images of the shooter and the shooting are nested in the minds of many viewers of that morning show and readers of news articles.  It was reported that the shooter was tweeting and posting on Facebook.  Unfortunately, this is not too surprising.  It is a sign of a 21st century approach to living and Internet-oriented or, dare I say, Internet-obsessed cultures in some societies.  If every day law-abiding people share their daily thoughts and actions (foods eaten and places visited) on social media, it would stand to reason this would become more and more commonplace for those who break the law.  That includes someone who planned a live broadcast killing.  The Internet was a way for the alleged shooter to share his thoughts and actions.  It was anticipated the thoughts and actions would live through the Internet long after the alleged shooter’s eventual death from a self-inflicted gunshot wound (suicide).

2. The media is doing a relatively good job in reporting this incident by giving the incident time to be dissected and discussed without making the alleged shooter “famous”.  But this alleged shooter is likely to have a degree of “infamy”. We have seen images of the alleged shooter both as a reporter and in his personal life.  The majority of media attention has been dedicated to celebrate the life, and being alarmed by the deaths, of the TV journalists.  I do not, however, think the media should show the complete video of the shooting.  This video is supposedly being shared on the Internet.  If this was being shared by actual news outlets that could possibly set a dangerous and frightening precedent.  News outlets are showing still images of the shooter either prior to or during the shooting. This frighteningly suffices.  This alleged shooter had concerns regarding perceived discrimination when he was a reporter, as well as personal issues for which he perhaps needed counseling and mental health treatment.  The complexity of this incident and the alleged shooting will have a lasting impact on policies and procedures of news outlets and have other societal influences.  Anyone with similar concerns as this alleged shooter might take this incident to be that of “fame” but “infamy” is the most likely outcome; and the attention will most likely be devoted to the victims and news outlets’ policies and procedures.  Once the initial shock and outrage is at rest, the attention will be less placed on the alleged shooter.  Copycats are possible for any crime that receives substantial attention.  However, increased awareness of the potential for such crimes and shifts to institutional policies and practices are expected to reduce the likelihood of copycat crimes.   The Internet will also play a substantive role in this process.

Allison Cotton, Professor, Department of Criminal Justice and Criminology, Metropolitan State University of Denver

1. I think it is a sign of the times that a shooter like that would post on social media.  That is not the reason that the person did the killings.  People who are at the end of their rope, like this killer seemed to be, only want to be understood in those last few moments.  They are fed up and want to explain what led up to their decisions.  Facebook and Twitter happen to be very convenient for that.

2. I do not think that the video of the shootings does anything to help to explain what occurred on that dreadful day.  You can describe it in words and then offer meaning for it, that is, we need to address mental health issues and gun control in the U.S.!  These things keep happening and we are not doing what needs to be done to try to prevent it.   We should look at the shooter as an exasperated person who felt bullied and frustrated, disappointed and ignored.  We should not demonize him by continuing to show the horrible images.

James Nolan, Associate Professor, Division of Sociology and Anthropology, West Virginia University

1. Social media is a modern way of being heard.  Facebook and twitter are used by many people today, including those feeling excessively isolated, marginalized, stigmatized, or alone. So, perhaps the following modification to the philosophical question of trees falling in a lonely forest may be apropos in this case. “If a “human bomb” blows up because of perceived wrongs or psychological troubles and nobody is there to hear it, does it make a sound?  To be heard is to acknowledge that one exists or has existed. So, it is not surprising to see the shooter use social media as he did, but it is horrific and terrifying nonetheless.

2. I think that the traditional media recognizes the many ways that this tragic story is newsworthy, say as compared to the roughly 15,000 “regular” murders in the United States or 300 plus murders in the state of Virginia each year.

Some might argue that the shooter should not be given air time because “that is what he wanted” or because “it may encourage copycats” who are similarly angry, isolated and want to go out in a big way.  I add to this argument that we should focus less on the offender because knowing only about him limits a full understanding of the underlying causes of this horrific event or how similar events can be prevented. The United States leads the world in gun violence for reasons that have little to do with the characteristics or mindsets of individual people.

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