Empire State Shooting Aftermath: Smartphones Drove the Gory Story

After the dust cleared in Manhattan on Friday, the Empire State Building shooting resembled nothing but a deadly tiff between two colleagues that amounted to a mere blip on the newsfeed of a country beset by a plague of far deadlier and more disruptive mass murders.

Of course, this particular story of resentment and revenge reached its deadly conclusion near one of the world’s most-trafficked blocks, and its narrative therefore belonged to the public in a sense. A small, related controversy popped up in the hectic minutes and hours after the shooting, and it centered on graphic content, respect for the dead and a question that might best be answered by any Joe or Jane walking down the street: When does an interest in informing the public conflict with a desire to protect them from disturbing videos and images that they don’t necessarily want to see?

It’s a predictable occurrence in our mobile media-saturated landscape: Quite a few passersby took photos of the carnage, and nearly every reputable publication reprinted them in some form. Instagram and Twitterspread the news (and the violence) more efficiently than any broadcast medium, and Instagram even went so far as to publish a blog post highlighting some of the photos taken (though the service’s bloggers tellingly omitted any images of the dead men themselves). Atop The New York Times website this weekend, for example, sat an airborne photo of victim Steve Ercolino; the man was clearly dead, with bright red trails of blood running from his head down the sidewalk, off the curb and into the New York City sewer system.

A tweet posted by tech blogger and man-about-town Anil Dash reveals the unease with which some members of the public and the press regarded these images–yet the pics drew big traffic, and they amounted to big, messy scoops for the hundreds, if not thousands, of bloggers who document everyday New York goings-on either professionally or recreationally.

The grisliest shots reminded us of gifted early 20th century photographer and police buff Weegee, who followed news of Manhattan-area murders on a police scanner in his apartment so he could arrive at crime scenes early for the juiciest, bloodiest photos. But Weegee only showed his photos in art galleries and anthologies–Today we’re all a little Weegee, our audience is endless, and the Empire State hubbub feels like par for the course.

So, do news organizations need to apologize to the victim’s friends and loved ones—or to the many web viewers like Anil Dash who clicked through not knowing what kind of carnage awaited them? It’s a tricky question, and we have a hard time saying yes. While we do think that news sites should publish disclaimers ahead of particularly graphic shots, we also feel like death is simply part of public life now more than ever. Most agree, for example, that shaky YouTube videos of government massacres in Syria are extremely valuable to a worldwide audience.

So where would you draw the line as a social media user and PR professional? Would you tweet pictures of deadly violence and its aftermath? Does our modern age require a new set of decency standards?