These New York Newspapers' Front Covers Featuring Vester Flanagan's Self-Made Murder Videos Aren't The Right Response
On Wednesday morning, WDBJ7 reporters Alison Parker and Adam Ward were shot to death while delivering a live news broadcast. The suspected perpetrator, Vester Lee Flanagan, filmed the shooting and posted it to his Twitter account, where he goes by Bryce Williams, before shooting himself. Though Flanagan's social media accounts were suspended shortly after the videos were posted, news agencies had enough time to take screenshots of the videos' disturbing images. Thursday morning, both the New York Daily News and the New York Post used screenshots from Flanagan's videos as their front-page images. This is wrong, regardless of whether organizations want to make a statement about gun violence in the U.S.
Some of the most colorful social media reactions to the covers included calling them a "steaming pile of maggot-infested gutter rot," "a shameful pile of trash," and "despicable." But others have defended the covers, saying that it forces U.S. citizens to understand just how horrific and tragic gun violence in the U.S. can be. Here are links to the Daily News and Post covers. Warning: The images are disturbing.
New York Daily News columnist Harry Siegel wrote a column in which he said that saved versions of Flanagan's videos shouldn't be taken down from social media sites or websites like Reddit because there's a "crucial separation between what you choose to watch and what you demand no one can watch." Siegel argued that not allowing anyone to see the footage, or stills of the footage, would continue the cycle of numbing people to abhorrent crimes — which is a huge problem when it comes to the deaths of black people at the hands of white police officers. Further, Siegel argued that we shouldn't push the moral beliefs of some people onto all people through a corporation — for example, Twitter removing all replications of Flanagan's videos.
The last argument makes sense. But the other two are ridiculous, because they fail to recognize the element of choice. Siegel wrote that there's a "crucial separation between what you choose to watch and what you demand no one can watch." A video posted online is something that someone has to click "Play" to see. But these newspaper covers will be plastered across newsstands all around the New York metropolitan area, and passersby will have much less of a choice in whether they see the disturbing images.
Specifically, the covers show stills from Flanagan's videos. In the first video, Flanagan approaches Parker and Ward while they are interviewing Vicki Gardner. He raises a gun so that you can see both it and Parker in the frame. He shakes the gun at her and whispers "Bitch." In the second video, Flanagan approaches Parker and Ward, raises the gun at Parker, and starts shooting as Parker screams and runs away. The images are terrifying and not easy to forget, and it would make sense that someone would want to avoid them.
By using stills from Flanagan's videos on their covers, the New York Daily News and the New York Post are failing to give people that crucial element of choice that Siegel himself conceded is important. A passerby who has a family member who was shot, for example, could see the cover while walking to work. Their choice to press "Play," so to speak, was stripped away in the name of selling magazines.
That's the other disturbing aspect of the papers' choice: It seems that they glorified the actions of a killer to sell more of their product. Yes, newspapers and magazines often play on readers' emotions to sell their work, but they do this in a way that doesn't force people to consume content that could cause them severe emotional distress. The photos of Adam Ward proposing to his girlfriend that are circulating on Twitter are a plenty powerful way to show the impacts of gun violence. Just printing the facts — that the gunman filmed himself shooting three people — is impactful enough.
Moreover, Flanagan wanted people to see his actions. Before his Twitter account was suspended, he bragged that he had posted the video on his Facebook page as well. The Daily News and the Post essentially validated Flanagan by giving him exactly what he wanted: an audience forced to listen to and watch his rage. By using stills from Flanagan's videos coupled with the word "execution," the magazines turned Flanagan into some kind of villain in a movie-like plot about revenge. Instead of trying to dissect the problems with our culture and remembering Parker and Ward in a beautiful way, the Daily News and the Post were partaking in the same culture of instant gratification and "Fuck you" attitudes that sparks tragedies like this.