Up in arms

— US


After footage of two TV journalists being shot dead – along with their killer’s self-filmed video – was aired last week, Ed Stocker examines the role of the media in US gun crime.

Shooting, Gun crime, Media

31 August 2015

It would be unoriginal and a little crass to harp on – from my Eurocentric viewpoint – about the US’s obsession with firearms. We’ve all seen enough school, cinema and now on-air TV shootings to be up to speed with the horror of it all. And despite it, the powerful pro-gun lobby argument continues, drawing on constitutional legitimacy and a deep distrust of government.

While the US pores over the debate once more and presidential candidates wade in – or not – there are other arguments to consider. The New York Times for example published a piece about the need for more workplace safety. Perhaps though, the very role of the media in all of this also needs assessing.

Mass, democratised media has turned many of us into narcissists. Being able to score “likes” by uploading images to social media is a 21st-century obsession. Vester Flanagan’s self-filmed video of his murder of a TV crew last week showed a high level of self-awareness through the haze of his paranoid psychosis. He’d worked in TV and knew the power of video – and he was determined to leave a posthumous legacy.

I was in New York when the Virginia shooting happened and watched CNN as events unfolded. The channel made a decision to show WDBJ-TV’s broadcast feed – and the shocked face of the anchor as they hastily cut back to the studio – when it happened. CNN originally decided to play the footage once an hour but later backtracked, making a note of telling viewers that the channel was no longer showing it.

Did it matter? The gunman had no doubt already achieved what he wanted: mass-coverage and everlasting notoriety. And CNN is far from alone. I flew to London the night of the shooting and the following day was confronted with a still of Flanagan’s own video on the front of The Times: a gun-barrel view angled towards reporter Alison Parker.

I’m not suggesting the media needs to self-censor. I’m not really sure what the answer is, other than a much-needed overhaul of laws but the point here isn’t to rehash those arguments.

What is true is that the media is helping sustain this very US malaise. Gunmen get their self-obsession titillated after being inspired by previous crimes they’ve watched being broadcast endlessly on 24-hour news channels. It will take a lot of courage and an even greater amount of soul-searching to end this sad, terrifying vicious cycle – and it’s not about to happen anytime soon.

Ed Stocker is Monocle’s New York bureau chief.


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