September 27, 2016

The shot heard ’round the newsroom

By Jessica Karins

Live television has always been a medium where anything can happen, and on Wednesday, perhaps more vividly and violently than ever, one news station found themselves at the center of a breaking story.

Alison Parker was conducting an on-air interview with local official Vicki Gardner with cameraman Adam Ward filming. Parker and Ward were employees of WDBJ7 in Roanoke, Va.

They were two of the many employees who were apparently disliked by shooter Vester Flanagan II. Flanagan worked as a reporter for the station for about a year until he was dismissed in February of 2013, and went by the name Bryce Williams.

According to CNN, Flanagan had a history both of filing workplace complaints and receiving complaints about his own behavior, and coworkers said they felt “threatened and uncomfortable” around him. 

Flanagan filed a lawsuit against WDBJ7 for racial discrimination. That lawsuit was settled out of court, but clearly not settled in the mind of the plaintiff. Executing a calculated plan, he shot and killed Parker and Ward and left Gardner injured – all live on camera. WDBJ7 reported that when the police confronted him, he shot himself, later dying in the hospital.

There are many biographical details about the shooter that are surely relevant to his motives, but one that could be key is his status as a former on-air news reporter.

Flanagan would have been familiar with the way shootings of this type were covered because the media has had to cover so many.

Journal Shooting Illustration Greyscale

Illustration by Sarah Blankenship

He would have known that the media would pore over his biographical details. He would have known they would wonder what in his life, his ideology or in his mental health led to the shooting.

He would have known coverage of crimes like this typically gives a great deal of weight to the individualized motivations of the perpetrator and that underlying causes are often overlooked.

He would have known that the names of mass shooters become some of the most famous criminal names in America, splashed across news headlines so often they become burned into our collective psyche.

Flanagan’s actions were those of a man with a deadly grudge, but they were also more than that. They were destined for the media, choreographed to be the biggest news WDBJ7 would ever break.

He not only performed the shootings live on air, but also recorded a video himself and posted it to Facebook.

The move seemed targeted to generate the ensuing controversy about whether it was acceptable to play footage of the crimes on air. ABC News reported that he had  even sent them a 23-page document about his motivations before the shootings even took place.

Shooters and domestic terrorists somehow never stop expecting the public to sympathize with them. Causes they believe in range from straightforwardly anti-government, like Timothy McVeigh, to obscurely anti-technology and science, like Ted Kaczynski.

Whatever the case, they often seem to think the public is waiting to hear their message, and that a gunshot or an explosion would be the sound that gets through to them.

Many of those who, like Flanagan, turn their violence on themselves seem to envision themselves as martyrs. It’s possible that they think their deaths will be seen as greater tragedies than their victims’ because of their own limited empathy, but that is rarely the case.

It is entirely possible that Flanagan’s complaints and lawsuits are valid. Racism is a pervasive problem in every profession. However, whether Flanagan’s original cause was righteous should not give us pause when examining his actions in the general trend of gun violence, or condemning them.

He saw himself as part of a pattern as well, alleging that the recent shooting in a black church in Charleston inspired him to strike back with violence. Clearly, his time as part of the American news media, or maybe just as an American, taught him this was the way ideological arguments played out.

NBC News reported that law enforcement found Flanagan had purchased his gun legally, and no one would have had any reason to feel that a history of lawsuits and workplace disagreements were a warning sign for perpetrating violent crimes.

The main thing that could have been done to prevent his actions would be to create a world where his perception of his impact would be incorrect. We have to work towards a news media that does not focus will single-minded intensity on the individual motivations of violent killers and that gives serious consideration to social problems before they become a cause for violence.

We have to create a society where armed violence is not the way to make one’s voice heard, and to listen to ordinary Americans who are not holding guns. Until then, our country will be held hostage, listening for the next shot.

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  • Jeff Bauer

    What a dangerous conclusion, to dis-empower the average! This will only, and can only, send this country faster into civil war. Only a fool can encourage this! It would be terrible, if the public wasn’t totally complaisant. Now it’s just tragic. What should people turn to as a way to communicate their dissatisfaction if not the language the oppressors? Think before you speak, think berfore this is silenced. . . .