Case Studies: How Much Is Too Much?

The murder Wednesday of a WDBJ journalist and cameraman in Virginia leaves us struggling to understand a sickening crime. It also raises important ethical questions on how the story has and continues to be covered.

News coverage of the shootings disturbed many viewers and readers as much as the event did. Some news media outlets posted images directly from the shooter’s Twitter account, including a still from a video showing a hand-held gun pointing at one of the victims just before the attack. Other outlets posted the footage captured by the WDBJ camera. Some readers have criticized these decisions for giving the perpetrator additional exposure or disrespecting the victims; others have said that the content is newsworthy and have retweeted the images and video on their own Twitter feeds.

To help your students explore the ethical questions about content use and sources during tragedy, NewseumED offers two related case studies for the classroom. “Cover Worthy” examines the decision by Rolling Stone magazine to put then-suspected Boston bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev on its cover; “Horror on Record” examines whether the news media should air a 22-minute video created by Islamic extremists.

Reading and discussing these case studies will help your students wrestle with questions surrounding news coverage of the WDBJ shooting such as:

  • What is the news value of the photo(s) or video?
  • How important is it for editors to know their community and readers and to base their decisions on that?
  • Would using the footage online, on TV or in print help the perpetrator gain attention/notoriety? Does the platform make a difference?
  • Is there a difference between embedding the video on a website and providing a link to it?
  • Does the photo/video inflict additional/unnecessary harm and pain on the victims’ families? Does that justify not running it?
  • Is it important that the footage was taken by the shooter?
  • When and how should the news media use photos posted on social media? What guidelines would you recommend?

Tips for Student Discussion:

In small groups, students should decide which of the options they think is the best choice. Challenge the students to think outside the box and come up with their own options if necessary. Ethically speaking, we hope journalists are accurate, fair and clear. Are all three of the characteristics met by the option chosen? Why or why not?

We are interested to hear your feedback, so please share your thoughts with us in the comment section. You can find more resources on our WDBJ shooting Pinterest board.

CASE STUDY: “Cover Worthy?

You are the editor of a national magazine that covers music, politics and popular culture. You assign a reporter to profile a suspect in a bombing that killed three people and injured hundreds. The suspect is the same age as many of your readers. The reporter interviews the suspect’s friends, teachers and police to examine what might drive a young man to kill indiscriminately.

At press time, you consider using on the cover a photograph that the suspect took of himself and posted to social media. It has appeared in other publications.

What do you do?

  1. Use his photo on the cover.
  2. Use a different photo of the suspect on the cover.
  3. Don’t use any photo of the suspect on the cover.

Questions to Consider

  • What are arguments for running his “selfie” photograph?
  • What are the arguments against running the photograph?
  • How will readers react to the photograph? Does it matter?
  • Would using his self-portrait on the cover be treating him like a celebrity?
  • Would using it be disrespectful to the bomber’s victims?
  • Does it make a difference that a suspect is presumed innocent until proven guilty?
  • Is it important that the photo was taken by the suspect himself?  Should the media be able to use photos posted on social media?
  • Does it make a difference that the photo was widely circulated prior to publication of the magazine?

You can find more resources on the real story on our Rolling Stone Pinterest board.

Case Study: “Horror on Record”

You are a producer at a cable news network. For months, your network has been reporting on an increasingly powerful group of violent Islamic extremists. The group posts a 22-minute video on the Internet that seems to show a hostage being burned alive in a cage. The video identifies the hostage as a fighter pilot from a country battling the extremist group.

As the producer of a U.S. news network, what do you do with the video?

  1. Report on the video, and include footage in your story. The group’s brutality is essential to understanding the story.
  2. Report on the video using footage, but choose a clip that avoids the most disturbing and graphic footage.
  3. Report on the video’s existence, but do not use the video on air. Instead, post it on your network’s website with a warning about the graphic nature of the content.
  4. Report on the video’s existence using a still image from the video. Using the footage feeds into the group’s desire to terrorize.

Questions to Consider

  • What are arguments for using the entire video? How do these argument vary for broadcasting the footage versus posting it online?
  • Is there an issue of greater public good – revealing the horror that this group is inflicting in the areas where it has taken control? Does that outweigh concerns that it might offend viewers’ sensibilities?
  • Could airing or not airing the video affect the ongoing effort to combat this group?
  • When is something “in bad taste” or offensive? How does this affect its newsworthiness?
  • Is it possible for news footage to be too graphic? Too personal? Too intense?
  • How will viewers react to the video? How is the experience different for viewers of the televised broadcast versus those viewing the story and video online?
  • Does the video inflict additional/unnecessary harm and pain on the hostage’s family and other victims’ families? Does that justify not running it?

You can find more resources on the real story on our ISIS Pinterest board.

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