One day after a gunman in Virginia shot and killed two TV journalists in the middle of an early morning live broadcast, the media is still wrestling with how to cover the incident, with journalists asking themselves whether there is news value to showing their audiences video footage of the incident.
In the midst of that soul-searching, editors at the New York Daily News made a call that is being roundly condemned as a craven and unforgivable play for attention and sales. Having apparently decided to package the news in the most graphic and disturbing way possible, the editors of the Daily News published a front page composed of three side-by-side stills, each meticulously pulled from a first-person video of the murders that was shot and posted on Facebook yesterday by the gunman himself.
Each of the three images is focused on a distinctly horrifying moment of the attack. In the first, Alison Parker can be seen conducting an interview, smiling brightly and plainly unaware of the gun, which we can see in the image, pointed directly at her at point blank range. The second shows the gun firing, its muzzle alight, while the shooter aims it directly at Parker’s torso. In the third and final image, we see Parker’s reaction to what is taking place, turning toward her assailant with her face contorted in abject terror and her body instinctively assuming a defensive stance.
Publishing these images—and presenting them in the form of a comic strip, no less—was a tasteless and cynical decision on the part of the Daily News. But it’s worth examining why the paper’s cover has provoked such a powerful reaction of disgust, including from those of us who were ambivalent or conflicted yesterday about whether publishing the available footage amounted to shielding readers from the gruesome reality of what happened.
Maybe the most important fact about these images is that they show the murder being committed from the murderer’s point of view, bringing to mind a screenshot from a first-person shooter video game, and forcing anyone who happens to pass a newsstand today to imagine themselves in the killer’s position. And while it’s not quite right to say that in doing so, the Daily News was inviting people to identify with Vester Flanagan, the fact is that anyone who sees this cover will have no choice but to assume his perspective. That includes children, which is one reason some readers are outraged. But perhaps more consequentially, it could also include people with revenge fantasies similar to the one that apparently motivated Flanagan—disturbed individuals who could conceivably be stimulated and catalyzed by the experience of imagining themselves in his shoes.
By isolating the seconds before, during, and after Flanagan pulls the trigger, the Daily News is indulging in—and prompting others to indulge in—a morbid fascination with what it’s like to kill someone. It plays on the same journalistic instinct that arguably led the New York Post, in 2012, to publish an image of a doomed man who had fallen onto the subway tracks staring at the headlights of an oncoming train—a deviant and ugly spin on the widespread, and usually innocuous, practice of creating content that offers “relatability.” And while there is an argument to be made that the country would be better off if more people understood, on a visceral level, the bottomless tragedy that accompanies each and every gun death, attracting readers by offering them access to that feeling where you sneak up on an unsuspecting human being and take her life is not a bad place to draw a line.