I wrote this colmn for the Daily Hampshire Gazette this week:
AMHERST – When the judge in the involuntary manslaughter trial of former Pelham Police Chief Edward B. Fleury ruled this week that video of the accidental shooting of 8-year-old Christopher Bizilj would be available to the media, I winced.
As a father of three, I carry a bias into this discussion. My knee-jerk, visceral reaction to the decision by Judge Peter A. Velis on Monday was twofold. First, I wondered how seeing such a video could not sway a jury and second, I wondered whether I would publish the video.
I spent Monday contacting friends – those still in the business, as well as fellow educators and media ethicists. Out of the nearly dozen people I spoke with, there was unanimity in the belief that there was little news value in publishing the video.
I’ve always believed in the power of images. I teach a multimedia course where students learn to create packages pairing the power of words with visual storytelling. Today, the new wave of storytelling includes audio slideshows and mini-documentary videos that can be found on news Web sites. Some sites provide raw, uncut video and images of news events. For those interested in bypassing the gatekeeper, you can go see graphic images.
It hasn’t always been this way. When I got my first newspaper job 25 years ago, the standard for newspapers was to not run shots showing blood on A1. Editors and publishers didn’t want to jolt readers over their morning coffee.
As an editor at The Washington Post’s Web site, I remember being part of a huge debate over whether to show images of the death and destruction following the 1998 embassy bombings in Tanzania and Kenya.
I argued against using the photos, but in the end, we decided there was news value in showing some of the reality of the attacks.
We had similar conversations during the attacks on 9/11 – especially on what to do with pictures of people jumping out windows of the Twin Towers. In that case, my colleagues and I felt the news value of those photos were not enough to outweigh the tragic circumstances behind them.
For me, a huge turning point came at the start of the Iraq ground war. During a debate on press access at a conference, a PR representative for the Army argued that access wasn’t the issue. He argued that U.S. media organizations opted to not publish photos showing the true cost of war. He was right, and it changed my perspective. In more cases than not, I now opt for transparency – for showing the reality via video or pictures.
This is not one of those cases.
Showing this video seems to border on the obscene. I’m not sure anyone needs to see this. The words alone depict a parents’ worst nightmare.
Will the video get out there? Undoubtedly. Such is the cost of living with a free press.
But, would publishing the video in this case force a real debate on gun control? I’ll admit, I don’t understand the gun culture that dominates this part of the country. I have many friends who are hunters and who have guns in their homes. I respect their right to hold their views but guns do not reflect my own values.
And, it’s just mind-boggling to me that a submachine gun would end up in the hands of an 8-year-old at a shooting range.
Does the potential for a gun control debate here create news value for the video?
I don’t think so.
Karen List, the director of the UMass journalism program and a media ethicist, says the debate over gun control will take place because of the tragedy behind this story, regardless.
Let’s hope so.
The debate should take place because a child died, not because of a video.
Steve Fox is a full-time lecturer and the multimedia journalism coordinator for the UMass Journalism Program. He has been a journalist for 24 years, including 10 years at the Washington Post’s Web site.