Vester Flanagan — a broadcast journalist fired from WDBJ-TV two years ago — filmed himself attacking the victims and later uploaded the footage to his Facebook account. He committed suicide after a police chase later that day.
Lynn Owens, a lecturer at the UNC School of Media and Journalism, worked with Flanagan on several assignments when she was a reporter for Greenville’s WNCT-TV from 2001 to 2003. She described him as professional and serious about work.
“He was a nice person — I don’t know that anybody would describe him as necessarily having a problem personality or anything like that — he was a very private person,” she said. “We worked together, just him and I, on many stories before, so it was very strange yesterday finding out that he was responsible for this.”
Lois Boynton, an associate professor of public relations and ethics at the journalism school, said decisions about running videos that are graphic or violent in nature come down to questions about the responsibilities of media outlets.
“Part of your responsibility to the public is to inform them of what’s going on,” she said.
“It’s also part of your responsibility not to be paternalistic and protective but to understand what would be reasonable that the average person can handle seeing.”
Earlier this year, Fox News came under criticism for airing an Islamic State group video that included a captured Jordanian pilot being burned alive.
Debashis Aikat, an associate professor at the journalism school, said reports including graphic violence are perceived as drawing attention to the perpetrator.
“The whole act of a terrorist depends on the media,” he said. “This is all about getting attention and bargaining power.”
Aikat said a risk of reporting violent events is creating copycats.
Studies have shown there has been an overall increase in crime-related reporting, Boynton said, while the statistics on actual violence do not show a similar trend.
“A couple of reasons have been given,” she said. “One is, ‘well, we’re giving the people what they want.’ The other is it’s easier to cover these kinds of stories.”
As newsroom staffs shrink and with the pressure of the 24-hour news cycle, Boynton said media outlets are likely to produce stories with readily available information — like crime stories.
Owens said she believes the incident will make broadcast journalists stop and question the nature of their work and the environment they work in.
“We’re vulnerable out there doing live shots. There’s no security when we’re out there,” she said. “Anything could happen.”