As I write this, Cleveland police are searching for a man who used Facebook's video feature to broadcast his murder of 74-year old Robert Godwin Sr. In the video the suspect talks about how he's always seen as a bad guy and so he's going to kill some people to prove how bad he is -- he also claims to have killed people before the death of Godwin.
I know about this story because NBC Nightly News came on after I checked the local weather and their top story was about the shooting. It showed a large chunk of the video leading up to the murder of Godwin, freezing the moment the murder suspect raises his gun on Godwin and then cutting to an image of Godwin on the ground.
It made me sick.
British filmmaker David Puttnam gave a TED Talk several years ago I use in my Introduction to Journalism classes to begin our conversation around ethics and a journalist's duty to serve their community. In it, Puttnam argues that, when covering political stories, journalists have a duty to inform their audience, not inflame it. They should not sensationalize stories.
Though it is a story about a crime and not politics, the use of the Cleveland murder suspect's execution video is the worst type of inflammatory reporting.
[Update Monday morning: A number of non-broadcast news outlets are also sharing the video, including the Washington Post, this morning. The suspect remains on the loose. Several news outlets have reported that he claimed to have killed as many as 14 or 15 people on Easter, but only evidence of one murder has been found.]
There is nothing news worthy in seeing the gun drawn nor in seeing Godwin's body on the ground. And, yet, that's what was shown on a number of television news broadcasts -- the moment just before Godwin's murder frozen over and over and over again.
He raises his arms to shield himself and you feel his terror and it is the most cruel and callous violation of a man's final moments.
Among the mandates set forth by the Society of Professional Journalists, SPJ, is the idea of minimizing harm.
Ethical journalism treats sources, subjects, colleagues and members of the public as human beings deserving of respect.
Showing the moments before Godwin's death shows no respect to him or to his family.
Showing his interaction on the video with his murderer shows no respect to the man nor the life he lived.
It does little but shock the viewer.
In Puttnam's terms: The video inflames, it does not inform.
Here's how this video might have been used:
And that's it. You set the stage for what happened and then you tell your viewer it happened. There is no need to show that final interaction nor Godwin's body moments later. There is no way to ethically, compassionately, or empathetically cut that video so that seeing Godwin's body does anything but shock; anything but sensationalize.
Just because the video exists does not mean you must show it to your audience.
This is not a new argument, of course; debates have raged for decades over when, how, and where to show images of death. I generally tend to lean in the direction of showing, not telling.
Human beings generally process visual information more quickly than other kinds. Photographs and videography are powerful storytelling tools. They have the ability to create intimate moments that build empathy and compassion and help an individual emotionally connect with a story.
But not everything captured should be shared.
Here's the question I tell my students to think about when they are considering what multimedia elements will go into their reporting: What work is the element doing for your story? What is it helping your audience understand?
If you can't answer that question, then it's unnecessary.
The image of Robert Godwin Sr. throwing his arms up, a shopping bag in one hand, communicates terror. But it is not necessary to make the audience feel a connection to the victim; it is, frankly, a cheap visceral moment. One that, to me, feels like a violation of a man's last moments on this earth.
A friend of mine, a colleague from my graduate program, posted on Facebook asking individuals to stop sharing the video of Godwin's death because "You are helping achieve the very thing he [the suspected murderer] was hoping for" -- exposure.
SPJ suggests that journalists should "Avoid pandering to lurid curiosity, even if others do."
I would argue that social media has made it far too easy for journalists to overlook that suggestion. Whether it is the personal photographs of a student who died of alcohol poisoning, Facebook posts by suspected criminals, or live videos of criminal acts as they happen -- journalists far too often given in to lurid curiosity. They scoop up what they find, sometimes contacting loved ones in Facebook or Twitter as their grief is warm in order to get a photograph or a quote; sometimes scooping up videos or photos a user thought were private and making them public in the name of little more than getting some detail another news outlet did not.
A man is dead. Murdered as he walked down the street on a warm April day in Cleveland. He had a life. He had a story. Robert Godwin Sr. deserves more than to have his murdered body broadcast across the world as his family, his friends, and his community grieve.
Americans' opinions of journalism are incredibly negative. Americans don't trust journalists for a lot of different reasons. I would argue that sensationalizing the murder of an innocent man and giving exposure to a possible mass murderer who, on the video, seems to say that he's doing this to get attention is a failure of journalism's duty of care to the public it serves.
Towards the end of his TED Talk, Puttnam says, "The media have to decide: Do they see their role as being to inflame or to inform? Because in the end, it comes down to a combination of trust and leadership."
Why should we expect Americans to trust news media when we can't be trusted to pay attention to our own ethical guidelines?