Posted Sept. 2, 2015
By Charles Bierbauer, dean of the College of Information and Communications
The live shot is a staple of television news. A reporter in the dim light of dawn or dusk, the midday sun, the rain, snow, sleet, mud and, occasionally, in the midst of the action. This past week on a Roanoke TV station, tragically, the live shot was the center of the action.
Journalists are prepared to take risks and willing to go dangerous places. A morning live shot about tourism in Virginia is not supposed to be one of those. Reporter Alison Parker and cameraman Adam Ward had no reason to think it would be.
Their former WDBJ-TV co-worker Vester Lee Flanagan, aka Bryce Williams, had other sinister, calculated, cold-blooded plans. All three are now dead. And by and large, we are grieved for two that were senseless and one that might have been foreseen, preventing the others.
The tragedy that morning on live television has raised the mundane morning live shot to provoke large and important questions about what we, as broadcasters, journalists and communicators, do and why we do it. Once again, there are also questions about the ubiquity and potential perversity of social media.
Live shots — the term now has a grislier connotation — are a derivative of television technology. Once you had to run cables, sometimes just out the front door of the TV station to the sidewalk to report the weather. Microwave technology cut the umbilical. We had mobile trucks, even though sometimes the truck just parked outside the station with the weather guy. Get the truck in the shot, news directors demanded.
Over the years I was in local and network news, I did thousands of live shots. On rooftops, roadsides and the White House lawn. Some of them were in potentially dangerous places. I'd like to think all were important stories for one reason or another. Breaking news or an update that moved the story forward. But sometimes, it was just because we could.
Live reporting makes it look like you are on the scene, on top of the story. "Do we see flames," an assistant news director in Philadelphia once asked. He'd have settled for lots of flashing fire engine lights and yellow tape. It's supposed to grab the viewer's attention. Following the WDBJ murders, a number of stations have indicated they are rethinking the live shot, at least the live shot for live shot's sake version. We'd all be better informed if the focus were on reporting, rather than superficial appearances.
The Virginia shootings also put the frequent superficiality of social media in a different light. Flanagan wielded a camera as well as a gun, recorded his vicious crime (let's not bother with alleged in this context) and posted it to Twitter and Facebook. Those sites would remove the shooter's posts, but they were already viral.
The caution we often hear on television — we must warn you, the video we are about to show is graphic — is barely relevant any more. We've likely already seen the video on a web site. One CNN anchor advised the network was only going to show it once, as if that made it go away. And if you run the video, where do you stop it? When we see the gun? Hear the shots? See Parker turn? Hear her scream?
On the Internet, in some cases, you don't have to make a decision. Autoplay takes over, rolling the video when you hit the site, just like the commercials you have to sit through to get to what you were looking for.
There are myriad questions about how social media served to spread Flanagan's message and manifesto. He added a dimension to the angered act of a disgruntled employee going postal. There is no question Flanagan knew what he was doing and how social media would serve his purpose.
These are questions that all of us, as journalists, teachers, media consumers and citizens have to ask. In our new journalism school building, the words of the U.S. Constitution's First Amendment ring the mezzanine, reminding us how we cherish freedom of speech and press.
Journalists will continue to do television live shots, but with a watchful eye on their surroundings. We'll continue to connect through the multitude of media available to us, but more alert, I trust, to ways in which it can be perverted.