Yesterday, two members of a local news crew in Virginia named Alison Parker and Adam Ward were murdered on live television. It was an event reminiscent of the time R. Budd Dwyer, a politician from Pennsylvania, shot himself during a press conference in 1987, or the 2012 incident when Fox News accidentally showed viewers a suicide at the end of a car chase it was broadcasting.
But video of the Roanoke tragedy spread more quickly than footage of those earlier deaths—it was not only broadcast live but recorded by the shooter himself, and soon these videos were appearing all over Twitter and Facebook, where some users couldn't avoid them thanks to autoplay features.
For obvious reasons, people found this upsetting. The internet is full of terrible, awful things for those who seek them out, but this video was not something you had to actively search for, like those of the Islamic State's atrocities, or use a special browse like Tor to pull up.
Questions about whether to publish upsetting content used to be the purview of media outlets—the New York Daily News was criticized widely for deciding to plaster news anchor Parker's final moments on its front page today—but thanks to social media everyone gets to decide whether to share graphic, disturbing videos with their followers and friends. It's natural to have debates, internally or with others, about some pretty heady questions. Is it OK to retweet or "like" videos like these, or even to watch them in solitude? Is every click allowing Facebook to pocket money off a truly horrific event—or, conversely, do we have a moral imperative to share this news with others because it could spur meaningful change, like videos of police brutality have throughout the past year?
We decided to ask Randy Cohen, a former ethics columnist for the New York Times Magazine, for advice on what to do when grisly footage has news value.
VICE: Is there something inherently wrong with watching a video like the one of the shooting yesterday?
Randy Cohen: I don't think it does any harm to anybody if you watch; in fact, no one will know if you've watched. So in that sense it's not an ethical problem. It's certainly not a legal problem. We don't have laws about looking at illegal images, except for child porn. But I think it might be a psychological problem, depending on how you look at it, that a constant exposure to images of horrifying brutality coarsens us. I don't think you'll enjoy the way you develop as a human being if you make a steady diet of [these videos].
But it's tricky, because there's a thin line between viewing something to increase your understanding of your world and the human heart and wallowing in it—you know, when does education become pornography? I'm not suggesting that we should avert our glances from every disturbing fact of life. On the other hand, if you find that you regard human suffering as a form of entertainment, I think something really bad has happened to you.
What's more selfish: watching it out of morbid curiosity, or willfully insulating yourself from tragedy?
Well, really, it's hard to probe your own motives, and regardless of your motives. On the one hand you don't want to be the kind of person who has no idea of what's going on in your world—and much social good has come of watching these kind of images. What I'm thinking of here now is the enormous number of recordings of police misconduct. The only reason, I would say, that we're seeing widespread efforts to reform police conduct is because there was video that lots of people saw. So in that sense, it's really, really great, it contributes to the betterment of society that people really did have an understanding of, "Here are some terrible things that some police departments have routinely done, especially against minority, younger people." If those tapes hadn't been around—starting with the Rodney King tape—if those tapes hadn't been around, I think you would've seen far less effort to reform, so that's great. And you might even argue it's a duty to watch that. To have some understanding.
On the other hand, when does it become porn? And here's where I think it gets even trickier: Is there a meaningful distinction between fact and fiction? That if it's bad for your development as a person, do you continue to treat human suffering as entertainment? Why isn't it bad if you watch the fictional versions of that, too? And one answer is, well, in fiction no one's actually getting killed. But I say in good fiction, your visceral response to it is not making that distinction. If you're watching Saw movies, that's not good for you. And the fact that you know, in some abstract sense, "Well yes, no one's actually hurt, it's just a movie," psychologically it's not. It's powerful because it feels real. So if that's bad for you—if we agree, "That's bad, a society that entertains its young people by showing them all the sequels to Saw, that's not a society I want to raise my children in," or, "That's not the way I want to raise my children"—why is that bad, and watching this stuff OK?
Who should get to decide who watches these videos? Should it be up to the victims, or the media, or people from Facebook and Twitter, who tried to scrub yesterday's footage?
No, the only person who gets to decide is you. And I think that's as it should be. A news division is supposed to decide, Is this event significant? And generally what that means is, does this event have implications for people beyond the people to whom it actually occurred to? If I eat pie for dinner, that's not news. But if millions of people have suddenly switched to the all-pie diet, that's news. So news directors and editors of newspapers, they're supposed to make this decision not because of what will happen when people watch it or because it will make the victims feel bad, or any of that. They're just supposed to make a professional judgment: Is this news? They aren't supposed to censor what we see because they think it might have a bad effect on us. But we determine what we see. I mean there's a reason I don't watch Fox News. I don't think that will deepen my understanding of the world.
Because yesterday's video autoplayed on Facebook, people were upset about being forced, unwillingly, to see this thing that's horrible and disturbing. Is it unethical to hit "share?"
No, no, I don't think it's unethical to make it available in any way. Right now, it's an individual decision about whether you actually push play, and I think that's what it should remain. But it's not for Facebook or Twitter to make a distinction.
Would the world be a better place if we we didn't pull any punches and showed war zones and victims of violence on the front page of newspapers?
If you look at, say, the New YorkTimes coverage of the Iraqi War, you nearly never see a photograph on the front page of an American suffering. You don't see a mutilated body. And terrible things happened to young American soldiers. Just appalling things. And the Times isn't trying to clean up the Iraqi War, they weren't favoring the Iraqi War, and they describe this stuff in their reporting. But they don't show those images. And I can understand why they don't. But it has the curious effect of sanitizing the war, that images are different than print. Moving images, video images—like of the shooting—they're deeply disturbing in a way that a prose description is not.
But is there a difference between showing a mutilated soldier in a war zone and showing this video? Some people would say this is just a horrible, aberrant act that happened. It's not like our tax dollars funded the act of violence, unlike in a war.
Is there no news value? It depends what you mean by "news value." I think there are images that have changed the world because they convey the horror of [war] in a way that prose doesn't. So I don't know. Clearly, people think there's news value in the stories, we've already decided there's news value. No one's suggesting we not cover the story. The question is how you cover it.
In a way, the question is, "Well, what coverage is too vivid? Maybe we're covering the story too well." If the point of the news report is to convey the horror of this, or if that's part of the point—this terrible thing happened, and we want to let you know that this terrible thing happened—those images certainly convey that. So what's your journalistic argument against showing it? Do you want to make shooting look less appalling? We don't want to do that. No one wants to do that. It's hard.
It seems to me the bigger story here is, we live in a country saturated with guns. That story. The story isn't whether the image is disturbing, the story is whether you want to live in a country where it is our policy to provide guns to lunatics. That's what we do here. That's our national policy. I haven't heard a single Republican political candidate, a presidential candidate, argue that, "Gee, maybe we should do something about our guns for lunatics plan. Maybe we should shut that down." We know certain things. We know the more gun ownership in a region, the more suicide there will be, the more shootings of police officers there will be. We're all theoretically against those consequences, but some of us are not against the obvious causes of those consequences: guns. That's what this is about. It's about what it's like to live in a country where guns are routinely available.
Follow Allie Conti on Twitter.