NPR Ombudsman

Gunshots And Screen Grabs: Reactions To NPR's Coverage Of The Virginia Shooting


Members of the WDBJ-TV7 news staff prepare for the early newscast at the station, the morning after reporter Alison Parker and cameraman Adam Ward were killed by a former colleague during a live broadcast.
Steve Helber, AP
Members of the WDBJ-TV7 news staff prepare for the early newscast at the station, the morning after reporter Alison Parker and cameraman Adam Ward were killed by a former colleague during a live broadcast.

A picture of a gun pointed at a victim, from the perspective of the shooter. The sound of gunshots. A photo of the gunman. Listeners and readers wrote to the Ombudsman's office with questions and criticisms of NPR's editorial choices as it covered Wednesday's killing of two television journalists from WDBJ, the CBS affiliate in Roanoke, Va. A third person who was being interviewed was also shot and injured.

NPR's journalists had many elements to use—or not use—in telling the story. The shootings took place during a live broadcast, and the video of that broadcast was widely disseminated. The shooter himself—a former employee of the station—uploaded to social media his own video of the shootings. did not use or link to either video. But the newsroom did post a screen grab—a still taken from the shooter's own video, as posted to his Twitter account—in two versions: one with the shooter's gun visible, with two of the three victims in the background, and one with the gun itself cropped out. All Things Considered, meanwhile, broadcast a short bit of audio of the shooting.

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Some listeners and readers were unhappy.

Anna Ressman, who did not say where she was from, wrote my office about the online story showing the shooter's gun:

"I purposefully chose to read the NPR article on the shooting of journalists in Virginia this morning because I thought that of all media outlets, NPR would be the least likely to use disturbing imagery available from the incident in their article. But just a short way into the piece, there is an image of the gunman's hand pointing his weapon at the female journalist who is interviewing another woman, both of whom are unaware that they are about to be brutally shot. WHY use this imagery? It is horrifying, heartbreaking, and something I will never get out of my head. There isn't even a warning at the beginning of the article that disturbing imagery is included below. Using an image of that extraordinarily powerful moment, while demonstrative of the callousness of the perpetrator and the innocence of the victims, also gives all power in the image to the shooter. Considering that he took two lives and attempted to take another in the following moments, there is no need to give his actions any additional power. And there is no reason to inflict such a powerful and horrifying image on readers who do not want to live with that imagery in their memories for the rest of their lives. We all know that if we want to see the gruesome events that we could easily search for the shooter's point of view video footage and for the footage captured from the broadcast."

Similarly, my office received this from Kristen Willet, who also did not say where she lives:

"I am writing in regards to the image used at the top of a story on the NPR website today. The article is titled 'As Killings Unfold On Live TV, Media Consider The Graphic Footage,' by David Folkenflik. The image is identified as 'A screen shot of a video posted to Twitter filmed from the shooter's point of view...' I am sincerely interested to know why this image was selected. Specifically why an image taken by the shooter was selected."

And Whitney Kuebert, from Oak Ridge, N.C., wrote to complain about the All Things Considered story:

"My 10-year-old and I were eating dinner together and listening the radio. I brought her attention to the story because we sometimes watch that station and I wanted her to know what had happened. I was alarmed when they played the gunshots and immediately jumped up to turn off my radio. That was completely unnecessary and disturbing - especially during an hour when children might be listening."

I asked Mark Memmott, NPR's standards and practices editor, about the choice to use the still photo from the shooter's video. He wrote:

"We had long discussions, as you might imagine. We did not want to post the video that the attacker made. It's very disturbing and distributing it would give him the kind of attention he apparently craved.

But we felt we owed it to our online audience to give them a sense of what was in that video, and that a screen grab would accomplish that. We realize it's a tough image. Perhaps we could have put it behind a 'screen.' But we felt it was important to show."

Meanwhile, "On the sound of the shots: we know it's hard to listen to," he wrote. "We felt that in a longer piece, on All Things Considered, we could prepare listeners for it and that the six seconds of that sound told a lot about what happened."

Each time there is an act of violence—such as this one, or the June killing of nine Bible study attendees in a Charleston, S.C., church—the choices of NPR journalists come under scrutiny. Several readers complained to my office that NPR over-used the picture and name of the shooter in the Charleston case. Reader Rajan Kose, of Yellow Springs, Ohio, praised NPR's restraint this time:

"I've written to you twice in the recent past complaining about your showing pictures of the gunman in mass shootings. I had said that I didn't want to see photos of the murderer smiling at me on the computer screen. So now I have to write and thank you and congratulate you for not showing a picture of the gunman in the recent shooting. Very much appreciated. We can read or hear the news without having to see their happy faces."

(In fact, NPR did show a picture of the shooter, but only in one story.)

My take: NPR showed appropriate restraint in not airing the videos. While I appreciate the sensitivities of listeners who did not want to hear the gun shots, All Things Considered host Audie Cornish introduced the piece clearly, with "a warning, some of what you'll hear is disturbing."

The pictures? Yes, they and the audio could have been described instead of shown (as they have been here) and yes, they are disturbing. But a killing that takes place on live television is shocking and had NPR stripped out every audio or visual element it would have somehow failed to convey succinctly just how shocking it was.

Does the use of the photo give power to the shooter (who later killed himself) as Ressman writes? In its limited use, as NPR has chosen to do, I don't believe so. But I would hope, and assume, that NPR will not repeatedly show the screen grabs in subsequent stories, nor endlessly rebroadcast the audio.

The news media's approach to covering these kinds of stories is evolving, as technology itself evolves and research emerges on what motivates these killers. captured some of the ethical debate here, and for one detailed perspective, see this opinion piece in The New York Times.

In addition, on the day of the shooting, NPR itself carried two reports discussing concerns about reproducing images from the shooter's own video. The first was in the piece mentioned by Willet. Folkenflik noted that, with digital technologies, "reaching a massive audience has never been easier for anyone with an Internet connection—including, apparently, a killer." Later, on All Things Considered, host Ari Shapiro interviewed New York University journalism professor Mitch Stephens about the dilemma faced by news organizations in reporting actions by killers wanting publicity.

Memmott, meanwhile, talked with Scott Simon of Weekend Edition Saturday about NPR's decision-making; we will link to that conversation and Memmott's online post when they are available.

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