It’s been three weeks since Vester Flanagan shot and killed two former WDBJ7 coworkers during a live broadcast in Franklin County, Virginia.
Hundreds of EIJ15 attendees gathered at the Orlando World Center Marriott Saturday for a panel discussion about the shooting’s effects on the journalism community. “I think what your ears heard and your eyes saw, your brain didn’t want to process,” Kelly Zuber, WDBJ news director, said to the audience.
Immediate effects fell on the WDBJ newsroom that day.
An employee who was close friends and often played golf with cameraman and victim Adam Ward, was tasked with editing video footage that day, Zuber said. He watched his friend die eight times that day.
“That day felt like the entire journalism world was united,” Brian Stelter, panel moderator and CNN’s senior media correspondent, said. “It felt like we lost two family members.”
Zuber said the shooting thrust their station into a limbo between reporting as journalists and grieving as victims. Apart from heavy emotions, the crisis also signaled red flags about the reporting process. Authorities usually wait until a case is thoroughly investigated before releasing information, but as victims, the station received regular updates.
After reporting that officers found the alleged gunman dead in his car, Zuber was later informed that he remained alive with a pulse. Outside of the WDBJ newsroom, false rumors and information of the events and suspect began to quickly circulate online. Some suggested said Flanagan had shot the reporters as retribution for being fired two weeks prior, according to Zuber. He was actually fired more than two years earlier.
A number of social media posts defamed another reporter when it falsely accused him of being the shooter. Mark Luckie, author and former manager of Journalism and News at Twitter, said reporters and media stakeholders are responsible for curbing rumors. “What we can do is remember that simply retweeting something, or forwarding something, or passing it along – even with qualifications – is not reporting,” said Luckie.
Luckie said it’s important for the media to inform the public, even if that means saying that no real information is available. “Counter misinformation with information,” he said. Twitter doesn’t actively sensor content, and it shouldn’t, Luckie said. He cited positive movements born from social media coverage of tragedies, such as the Black Lives Matter movement.
Zuber said there are still “We Stand With WDBJ7” photos across the walls of their newsroom. However, not posting graphic images might prevent the glorification of violence, even if that wasn’t the poster’s intentions, he said.
Stelter said the same technology used to document joyous events, such as weddings, is also used by criminals to produce their own content. “It’s not enough to attack people, you have to record it as well,” he said.
Zuber said people in the newsroom accidentally watched Flanagan’s point-of-view shooting video as they autoplayed on Twitter. “It was like it had happened in the newsroom,” she said. The Internet shares similarities with TV, such as viewers sometimes seeing images against their will, Stelter said.
Zuber said the station no longer announces when it’s going live, which they’ve only done once since the shooting – in the safety of a fire department.
She also said officers suggested keeping escape routes and considering protective objects to use as cover in mind such as news vehicles.
The station still receives threats from viewers who claim it staged the shooting, Zuber said, and half the reporters are uneasy about leaving the newsroom.
“It was our sanctuary,” Zuber said. “It was where we could hold each other and cry.”
The discussion closed with questions from the audience, followed by a standing ovation.