WDBJ: When Social Media Becomes a Sad, Dark Place

The events of the past week moved social media into a new uncomfortable realm.

Alison Parker WDBJ

The methodical, ambush murders of WDBJ-TV (Roanoke, Va.) morning show reporter Alison Parker and photographer Adam Ward — two young people, just doing their jobs — prompted an outpouring of shock and grief that immediately spilled onto Twitter and Facebook. Their deaths were compounded by the fact that they were killed on live television –and their killer, in a sickening twist, shot his own video of the frantic moments.

Adam Ward WDBJ photographer

It’s okay not to comment

Where does one begin to find the words to describe how sadistic this is? Twitter was full of eloquent, heartfelt words of support for their co-workers. But having only 140 characters made it painfully awkward.

About three hours after the shooting, one traffic reporter tweeted matter-of-factly, “Sad morning for all of us who work in television. Reporter and photographer shot and killed during live newscast.” You would think the station receptionist had died of a heart attack.

The problem is people think they have to say something, when they shouldn’t. No one should feel compelled to join the conversation. And frankly, unless you have information that advances the story, it’s usually best that you don’t.

Here’s an example of a post that struck just the right tone:

Twitter reacts to WDBJ murders

Social decisions

Journalists have a responsibility to minimize harm to the victims of crime and their families. To that end, this was not social media’s finest hour.

USA Today reports that the killer created his Twitter and Facebook accounts just a week before, obviously intending to use social media to show the world what he had done. Those pictures sparked a debate over “how much is too much to share.” The New York Daily News has been roundly criticized for its front page, using freeze frames from the video the gunman himself presumably uploaded. Particularly appalling is the fact that the social media team at @NYDailyNews felt compelled to give us all an ‘early look’ by posting it the night before on Twitter. Really?

NY Daily News tweet on WDBJ murders

Adam and Alison’s station aired the video once. CNN made a rather strange call to air the death video “once an hour.” Presumably, that news cycle is over. But as of this weekend, the video clip from the live newscast could be seen on the CNN website with a disclaimer.

CNN graphic content warning on WDBJ video

A job with no glory

These kids had one of the most thankless jobs in television: Getting up in the middle of the night, heading into work in the dark, throwing their gear into a live truck and traveling – in this instance – more than 30 miles to interview a local chamber of commerce cheerleader. Not exactly a risky assignment – or one would have thought. We now know they were both shot in the head.


Last Tweet from Alison Parker WDBJ


Alison’s last tweet a few days before she died says it all about who she was. And no doubt, it’s an innocence that will live on in the memory of her friends and family.

For all the bad behavior out there, it’s also nice to see that Alison’s page is at 45,000 likes and growing. Thanks to Facebook, even the people who never knew her will feel like they did.


A fund has been set up for the families of ADAM WARD and ALISON PARKER.  You can learn more about it and contribute here.  Their boss, WDBJ-TV General Manager Jeffrey Marks, reflects on the tragedy in a letter to fellow broadcasters which you can find here

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