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The Virginia On-Air Shootings: All Too Real

The Virginia On-Air Shootings: All Too Real by Russell Frank, The Conversation

In an interview with the New York Times Sunday Book Review this week, children’s author R.L. Stine joked that he never reads nonfiction: “I hate anything real.”

Stine could have been speaking for the legion of commentators who spoke out about the on-camera shooting of two journalists and an interviewee in Virginia on Wednesday. But apparently, he wouldn’t be speaking for many people in the media.

Fictional on-screen killings are as common as weather reports. Real ones are rare: Jack Ruby’s killing of Lee Harvey Oswald two days after Oswald shot President Kennedy and a suicide on a Los Angeles freeway in 1998 are among the few that viewers could see as they happened.

In such unfolding situations, TV station managers can argue that they had no way of knowing that the incident would end the way it did and could not cut away in time. The real controversy centers on re-broadcast of the ghastly footage. Here, the suicide of Pennsylvania State Treasurer Budd Dwyer in 1987 enters the picture.

What to show

It was the day before Dwyer’s sentencing on fraud charges. He called a news conference in Harrisburg and after reading a statement, with cameras rolling, he put a gun in his mouth and fired.

Most Pennsylvania TV stations got the footage around a half-hour later. Most only showed Dwyer brandishing the gun. A couple showed him putting the gun in his mouth, but cut away before he pulled the trigger. Three showed him pulling the trigger.

A similar range of decisions was on display within the first few hours of the shooting of journalists Alison Parker and Adam Ward...