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Covering criminal suspects who seek media attention




A figure, possibly the suspect, is shown during a live news broadcast from Virginia station WDBJ7 as shots are fired on Wednesday, August 26, 2015. The reporter and photographer were killed.
A figure, possibly the suspect, is shown during a live news broadcast from Virginia station WDBJ7 as shots are fired on Wednesday, August 26, 2015. The reporter and photographer were killed.
Screenshot from WDBJ7

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Someone claiming to be Vester Flanagan, the man suspected of shooting dead two WDBJ journalists, sent a 23-page suicide note to a news network following Wednesday's killings.

It's not unusual for extreme acts of violence to be accompanied by narratives, like manifestos or Flanagan's alleged note, for the media to soak up. But how should the media handle this kind of information, and why is this a consistent trait among certain suspects?

Kelly McBride, an ethicist for Poynter says there are few easy choices when it determines what to broadcast.

“Journalists were faced with two really critical decisions: one around rebroadcasting the live broadcast, and then the other decision of what to do with the killer’s self-made video.”

While it’s now commonplace for shooters to make their own media package, she says there is little precedent for Wednesday’s slaying. McBride notes, whether or not outlets decide to broadcast the footage, the macabre video will still be viewed online.

“A psychologist once explained to me that we have this biological urge to look at violence -- and it’s a self-preservation -- like a, ‘I don’t want that to happen to me.’ And so it’s really important for journalists not to exploit that."

Psychologist Brian Van Brunt trains other experts to spot violent threats online. He says it’s become increasingly common for killers to seek publicity.

“More commonly, what we’re seeing is what’s called a ‘legacy token.’ People are creating media packages, almost like a press kit prior to the attack, and this goes back to Virginia Tech … More recently the Isla Vista shooter in California …”

To listen to the full interview, click on the blue audio player above.