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Thursday, August 27, 2015 

The worst is yet to come.

When it comes to covering breaking news, broadcasters and live bloggers are always going to be damned if they do and damned if they don't.  Yesterday's murders in Virginia, notable internationally only because it involved two journalists being shot at live on air (however harsh that sounds) were always going to involve an element of voyeurism precisely for that reason.  When they had already shown video of Adam Ward's camera hitting the floor and played the audio of the gunshots and Alison Parker's screams, as without it this was just another shooting in a country that sees dozens every day, it was hardly a leap to then linking to or hosting the videos the murderer himself shot.  If one outlet decided not to, others would have done, while at the same time the videos were being shared on Twitter and Facebook regardless.

Getting too sanctimonious about the initial coverage is pointless.  Decisions on featuring content that previously would have been debated intensely now have to be made in a matter of seconds, like it or not.  The 24-hour news monster may have been created by the media themselves, but it has long since been overtaken by the demands of consumers.  The BBC was criticised earlier in the month for taking slightly longer than its competitors to report on the death of Cilla Black, as it apparently awaited confirmation from a family member, for instance.

As I've argued in the past, looking for the transgressive, the extreme, the forbidden is just as normal as not looking for it.  Judging people that choose to seek out the worst the internet has to offer, so long as that worst does not break the law, is not going to change minds, whether it's the hacked personal photographs of celebrities or Islamic State propaganda (and that so much as watching videos by Islamic extremists is enough in some cases to get you arrested is a disgrace in itself).  At worst it is the height of hypocrisy: I've seen this material, I'm pretty much telling you where to find it if you so wish, but you're a terrible human being if you do.

This said, it should always be the active choice of the person to watch such material.  Click and be damned.  Search and be damned.  When newspapers, forced or rather unable to compete with such rivals then make the decision to put on their front pages images shot by the killer pointing his gun at Parker, with the Sun going so far as to screencap the exact frame when he fired the first shot, grabbing the flash of the muzzle, the question of complicity comes very much into play, without any of the grounding that say films that have asked their audience why they're still watching have done.  If anything, printing mere shots from the video is far worse than watching the whole thing.  The grabs show the murderer as he imagined himself, in a position of power, stalking his victim, waiting for the moment he decides is best for taking the life of another person, for maximum impact.  The full video shows Parker's absolute panic and terror, inviting sympathy and empathy for her and Ward.  It also reminds of just how common gun violence is in the United States, an epidemic that could be curtailed if only there was the political will to do so.

It has also left almost anyone who has gone into a supermarket, off licence or onto a garage forecourt without the ability to make the active choice as to whether or not to see someone in the process of taking a life.  Again, that this happened in the US has without doubt played a role in the editorial decisions: had it been in this country, it seems unlikely the papers that chose to use those grabs would have come to the same decision, precisely because the backlash would have been all the fiercer.  The Sun for one made clear last year it would not print any of the images from the IS video that showed the murder of Alan Henning, as they would not give his "absurd murderers the publicity they crave".  The killer of Parker and Ward may not have filmed his attack partially for the purpose of spreading fear, but he clearly did so knowing full well that he was about to have the publicity he had long craved and believed he had been wrongly denied.  His task done, he further denied the families of the two people he killed proper justice by taking his own life.

You could if you so wished put the shooting and its aftermath down as just the latest extreme example of the latent narcissism that drives a minority into believing they are entitled to something they're convinced they've been wrongfully denied.  It also though reflects on the media that so often encourages such beliefs, that thinks so little about the impact it has, and which it would be foolish to dismiss outright as having very little overall impact.  It also, sadly, marks the beginning of what thanks to advances in technology and the internet of things is bound to be just the first in a series of acts committed with the intention of garnering the maximum possible publicity.  It can only be so long before a spree killer streams live his trail of murder and horror, before someone who believes he has nothing to lose tortures a kidnap victim while taunting journalists, the police and the social networks over their failure to find where his feed is coming from.  If yesterday was a challenge to the media's sense of ethics, morals and news values, the future promises far worse.

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