Why we decided not to publish pictures of the WDBJ live TV shootings

They may have spread around the world, but there is no public benefit in reproducing them

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Journalists frequently face danger in the course of their work. But Wednesday’s murder of a TV news presenter and her cameraman during a live broadcast was perhaps unique. The calculated manner in which a former colleague, Vester Flanagan, approached and shot them in cold blood was truly horrifying. He has been described as ‘disgruntled’, which doesn’t exactly cut it.

For the WDBJ television station, the killings are a tragedy. For other media outlets, they provoked not only huge sympathy but also an acute dilemma as to how best to cover what was, in pure news terms, a major story.

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There are always two competing imperatives at play in the reporting of an incident in which people have been killed or injured. On the one hand, we should tell readers and viewers what has happened in a way that doesn’t over-sanitise or mislead; on the other, we should show sensitivity to the feelings of bereaved families and surviving victims and avoid needlessly distressing other readers. Getting the balance right is often less than straightforward – it is also a highly subjective judgement.

What made the decision more difficult in this case was the inevitable speed with which graphic images were circulating. Not only was there the immediate footage of the interrupted live broadcast, soon after Flanagan uploaded his own video of the killings to Twitter.

The view in The Independent’s newsroom was that to show any images which depicted Alison Parker as, or after, she was shot were inappropriate. Our duty to handle publication sensitively outweighed any need to actually show the presenter in the moments of her death – indeed, what benefit could there possibly be?

Some – including Ms Parker’s grieving father – have drawn a comparison with the way crimes committed by Isis are reported. There is something in this, in that Isis-affiliated terrorists produce videos of beheadings and other brutalities because they want the media to report on their atrocities. Likewise, Vester Flanagan presumably chose to attack during a live broadcast because he wanted publicity; and he uploaded his own film because he wanted the world to see the murders through his eyes. Why on earth should we oblige the wishes of an unstable, individual killer any more than those of an organised group of violent, ‘religious’ fanatics?

If anything, there seems even less of an argument to show the deaths of Ms Parker and Adam Ward, seemingly killed for personal reasons by a madman with a grudge. The ongoing threat posed by Isis might in theory be better understood if we see what they are capable of; there is no such reasoning when it comes to a one-off murder – however dramatic.