Newsrooms across the country were faced with a difficult decision on Sunday after footage was broadcast on Facebook Live that showed an Ohio man plotting the murder of a random elderly pedestrian.
The man then carried out the shooting on Facebook Live and commented on it afterward.
No major network showed the killing of 74-year-old Robert Godwin Sr. allegedly carried out by 37-year-old Steve Stephens on video.
The Hill reached out to all the major news networks for comment on how each handled the presentation of the story.
Most spoke on background, providing clips showing examples of how the story was covered. All made a point to state the actual execution was not shown to their respective viewers.
ABC, NBC/MSNBC, CBS and Fox News all showed footage of Stephens driving in his car and declaring he had already killed 13 people and was “working on” killing a 14th. CNN only showed still photos of Stephens.
Police have said there is no evidence to suggest that Stephens killed 13 people.
“Found me somebody I’m about to kill — this old dude,” Stephens says in one clip included in national news reports.
ABC, NBC/MSNBC and CBS then show Stephens approaching the 74-year-old grandfather walking home from Easter dinner and asking him to say the name of Stephens’s ex-girlfriend.
Fox News does not show this portion of the video, nor does CNN.
“She’s the reason this is about to happen to you,” Stephens is heard saying.
Viewers witness Godwin crouching and holding up his hands in fear as Stephens points a gun at his head. The gun can be seen in the footage.
None of the networks show the gun being fired, killing Godwin.
CBS News does show a screenshot of Godwin, with his face blurred after he was shot in the face, lying on the ground. Blood can also be seen splattered around him on the sidewalk.
“The television news producers are exploiting this story and the death of Mr. Godwin so they can show sensational video,” said Jeff McCall, a professor of communication at DePauw University. “In that sense, the television organizations are playing directly into the hands of the perpetrator, who clearly wants maximum attention.”
Facebook has also come under scrutiny.
On Monday, the company promised to review its reporting process for users who see inappropriate content.
Justin Osofsky, Facebook’s vice president of global operations, wrote in a blog post that the company wants to make it easier for users to flag posts that may violate Facebook's rules.
“We disabled the suspect’s account within 23 minutes of receiving the first report about the murder video, and two hours after receiving a report of any kind,” Osofsky wrote of the Stephens matter. “But we know we need to do better.”
“As a result of this terrible series of events, we are reviewing our reporting flows to be sure people can report videos and other material that violates our standards as easily and quickly as possible,” Osofsky added.
The ethical choice of how much to show in such an incident is becoming an increasingly common issue for news directors and editors in a world in which a smart phone can serve as a satellite broadcasting dish.
In July 2016, a streamed Facebook Live video showed the shooting death of Philando Castile in Falcon Heights, Minn., by a police officer during a traffic stop.
The moment after Castile was shot multiple times by the officer, footage that included Castile's slumped body covered in blood was streamed live on Facebook by Castile’s girlfriend, Diamond Reynolds.
“You shot four bullets into him, sir,” a distraught Reynolds said to the police officer. “He was just getting his license and registration, sir.”
Facebook didn't remove the video for hours. Protests and riots soon followed, and officer Jeronimo Yanez was charged with second-degree manslaughter.
Antonio Perkins, 28, was killed in a drive-by shooting attack in Chicago while he was live-streaming himself with friends in a residential neighborhood in July 2016. The video was viewed hundreds of thousands of times.
Facebook decided not to take the video down, saying it didn't violate company standards because it didn't “celebrate or glorify crimes on Facebook.”
NBC News came under considerable pressure 10 years ago after its decision to release a manifesto that included video and photos it had received in the mail from the gunman behind the shooting deaths of 32 students and teachers at Virginia Tech University.
Family members of the victims said they were upset by seeing the images and felt as if they were forced to relive the day. Some canceled interviews with the network as a result.
Bruce W. Cameron, a retired federal law enforcement official and a licensed counselor and psychotherapist with 30-plus years of experience, believes showing the kind of content leading up to the killing of Godwin by Stephens on Sunday, even if it doesn't include the actual moment of the shooting, will only help normalize these acts.
“This desensitizes our culture even further. It used to be a big deal when someone was killed in the news. No longer. Showing this level of raw footage takes us to a new low,” he said.