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Death Of Journalists Points Out Dilemma Of Publicizing Mass Shootings

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Flanagan posted a video of his attack to Facebook. It shows his gun pointed at the victims. It's his point of view and then the shots. On twitter, he directed viewers to that posting. Mitch Stephens is a journalism professor at NYU. When we reached him today, I asked how this shooting feels different from so many of the other recent acts of public violence.

MITCH STEPHENS: I think all these mass shootings are different and should be different. If we get to the point where they all start running together, then we're really in trouble. But this one involves a journalist in a scene that has become sort of familiar, even intimate, for so much of us in a journalist working. And it also involves something that was recorded that we can see. So, you know, it comes to us on our computers. It comes to us, potentially, on our televisions. And I think it's also different in the fact that Facebook is involved. Facebook, which, for so many of us, has become such an intimate part of our lives - a family and friend part of our lives - has been violated by the obscenity of a shooting.

SHAPIRO: What do you make of the idea that these people were performing an act of journalism and then the killer went and performed what some people could perversely describe as an act of citizen journalism posting the footage of it on social media like that?

STEPHENS: Well, I refuse to accept the term citizen journalism for something so obscene. What journalists do is report. I mean, the analogy here for me is the ISIS videos.

SHAPIRO: The father of the reporter who was killed said that the video reminded him of the ISIS videos.

STEPHENS: People have begun to use media now that it's so much easier to get your hands on media to post something on media as a way of publicizing their terrible acts. It's almost a form of exhibitionism and you know, people who are trying to establish some sort of identity in the world whether it's terrorists, whether it's one, you know, presumably crazy person with a grievance.

And you know, some of this has happened before. You know, decades ago, airplane hijackers were persuaded by the publicity that attended their acts, even the chance of their acts to appear on television.

SHAPIRO: So are we publicizing this act?

STEPHENS: I think, you know, the world might be safer if we ignored completely these things. But I think that world would be - also be a nightmare to live in. I would not want to live in a world where television networks and the newspapers didn't report on these things because of the possibility that it might create some sort of copycat crimes. We have to report these things.

SHAPIRO: You're a journalism professor, and when we think of the risks facing journalists, we tend to think of places where there's war, violence, terrorism. We don't often think of journalists being killed in the line of duty doing something as innocent as reporting on tourism in their hometown.

STEPHENS: And I don't think, in some ways, this is especially a journalism story. There are enough stories of very brave journalists going to places that are dangerous to cover very difficult stories. This was not the case here. These were people going about their business, doing their job. And in some sense, they could have been working in a post office. They could have been working at a mall. You know, they could have been in a church.

SHAPIRO: Is this in some way an inevitable convergence of technology, violence and media?

STEPHENS: We should never accept something like this as inevitable. But it is true that in a wired world where videos are easily recorded and easily distributed, this sort of thing is going to happen. But I don't think we want to, in any way, pin this on television certainly or on social media. Terrible things happened before television. Terrible things happened before Facebook. But I think that these new forms of communication make it easier for people to publicize their acts, and they also face us with the awful, awful dilemma of whether to look.

SHAPIRO: Mitch Stephens is a journalism professor at NYU. Professor Stephens, thanks for joining us.

STEPHENS: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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