The rise of the murderer journalist: the killers using social media to get an audience

How tech is giving evil an unprecedented platform

Citizen journalism has shot to popularity thanks to smartphones, social networks, and media-sharing sites. Whether it’s blogs, tweets, images, or video captured from events in Ferguson, Missouri; the London Riots, the “Occupy” protests or the Hudson River landing, citizen journalists have been regularly supporting, interacting with and informing traditional journalism for years. However, this week’s tragic shootings in Virginia highlight the fact that there’s a far more sinister figure coming out of the shadows – the murderer journalist.

The murders of Alison Parker and Adam Ward and the wounding of local chamber of commerce official Vicki Gardner, live on breakfast television, shocked the world. It wasn’t long before the chilling videos and images of the shootings were repeated via TV channels globally. But we didn’t just see the last bits of film captured on Adam Ward’s camera, footage of the crime scene, or aerial images of the motorway where the ensuing car chase took place. What made the footage more shocking was the fact we saw the whole tragic event unfold through the raw, unfiltered view of the killer.

A 56-second video, which seemed to have been taken via a body camera worn by the gunman, was announced on the killer’s Twitter page: “I filmed the shooting see Facebook”. And there it was on his Facebook page – published for the world to see. It wasn’t enough for former TV reporter Vester Flanagan to commit murder live on air in front of the breakfast show audience, nor was it enough to know that this footage would then be seen by millions of people the world over.

He wanted us to see him raising the gun and firing at point-blank range. He wanted us to see the fear on the victims’ faces. Chillingly, a man claiming to be Bryce Williams – Flanagan’s on-air name – called ABC News saying he wanted to pitch a story. Alongside a 23-page manifesto, which he faxed to ABC News after the murder, Flanagan did indeed deliver his final TV news package. Social, video, the supporting text – the full package was there and ready for its audience: us. He’d succeeded in ensuring that via broadcast reports, coverage on online news sites, and social media streams, the dark and disturbing images were everywhere you looked.

Flanagan was demanding an audience. He was forcing us to watch and listen to what he had to say and he is part of an increasing number of killers now aware of the opportunities technology offers in terms of maximum impact and audience reach. We’ve all seen the grisly images Islamic State releases of its killings.

The terrorist group is a media-savvy PR machine that produces slick, sickening video productions, uses hashtags and boasts openly on social media of its victories and murders to intimidate and disgust. One of the most shocking and widely covered examples in the press last year was the tweet: “This is our ball, it’s made of skin #WorldCup”, which was accompanied by a video showing the beheading of a Sunni police major. Newsrooms now receive Islamic State videos with subtitles in multiple languages, swelling background music and soft-focus for added dramatic effect. These Hollywood-style propaganda productions are made to be seen and dissected by viewers.

However, the rise of the murderer journalist doesn’t just give us an unfiltered look into the dark minds of the perpetrators and what happened in real-time, it also turns the spotlight on us. We’re the consumers, but how much should we, and do we need to, consume? Following the Virginia shootings, there were no doubt conversations in newsrooms worldwide as to which particular still should be used, where videos should be cut, and what the disclaimer should say ahead of the video. But what purpose do these images serve? The fact that a double murder has happened isn’t altered by what we see – it doesn’t make it any more real.

Alison Parker’s father said of the video: “I am not going to watch it … all it would do is rip out my heart further than it already is.” Are we now so desensitised to violence that we have to see it to believe it? For the families of the victims, the images only serve to add to their grief but for others they’re just another aspect of a news story.

The debate is now raging as to whether media outlets were right to publish footage of the event. The Sun and The Daily Star caused outrage by using an image of the gun being fired. Many other papers refused to use the images Vester Flanagan would have wanted them to, and instead focused on portraits of the victims. In the digital age, when images and video spread like wildfire, everyone – including murderers – have the ability to become journalists and publishers. What we have have to ask ourselves is whether we want to give people like Flanagan and groups like Islamic State the attention they’re demanding on our social networks and mainstream media. Do we want to be their audience? We have the choice to not watch, not share, and not buy the papers.

The Sun’s approach to Islamic State’s video of the murder of British aid worker Alan Henning in 2014 is perhaps one we should all step back and consider when such atrocities happen: “We are not publishing images from the video… we refuse to give his absurd murderers the publicity they crave.”


Main image: iStock/kyoshino