Tragedy Strikes On Air, Races Through Social Media

Gunman posts video of shooting
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Alison Parker Adam Ward

WDBJ posted this image of Alison Parker, left, and Adam Ward, in the wake of the shooting that left the young journalists dead. Photo courtesy of WDBJ. The news became the news on Wednesday when a gunman opened fire on a reporter and her camera operator as the pair did a live report from a small Virginia community. The story unfolded across social media after Alison Parker, 24, an her videographer, Adam Ward, 27, were shot at approximately 6:45 a.m. Eastern Time while Parker was interviewing Vicki Gardner, a local Chamber of Commerce representative. Gardner was injured in the shooting, underwent surgery and was expected to recover, according to WDBJ, where Parker and Ward worked.

The shooting went out over live TV and was captured via smartphone video by a viewer who posted it to Facebook. The video showed Parker interviewing Gardner when shots suddenly rang out. Both women ducked, then Parker fell just as the camera view jerked into blurriness before landing sideways on the ground. The shot then returned to a stunned Kimberly McBroom at the anchor desk at WDBJ, the CBS affiliate licensed to Roanoke and Lynchburg, Va., owned by Schurz Communications.

McBroom had teased the live shot on Twitter, and then fell silent until hours after the shooting, when she posted, “Heartbroken over the loss of two members of our @WDBJ7Mornin family … There are simply no words.”

Leo Hirsbrunner, also a morning anchor at WDBJ, posted an Instagram picture of Parker and Ward horsing around and said, “I will miss these guys more than words can ever say. Made each and every morning at work so much brighter!”

Both Parker and Ward were in relationships with other WDBJ employees. Ward’s fiancée, a producer at WDBJ, is said to have watched him die on air. Parker was seeing WDBJ Anchor Chris Hurst, who posted a picture of the two of them on Twitter after the shooting, saying, “We didn’t share this publicly, but @AParkerWDBJ7 and I were very much in love. We just moved in together. I am numb. ”

While authorities searched for the gunman, WDBJ President and General Manager Jeffrey Marks joined the morning anchor crew to confirm the deaths of Parker and Ward. “We are choosing not to run the video of that right now, because frankly, we don’t need to see it again. Our staff doesn’t need to see it again.”

The shooter was soon identified as a former station employee, Vester Lee Flanagan, who went by the name of Bryce Williams on the air, and who posted video of himself shooting Parker and Ward on Twitter under his handle, @Bryce_Williams7. Flanagan tweeted that “Alison made racist comments,” and that “Adam went to HR on me after working with me one time!!!”

Flanagan’s Twitter account was suspended, but Jezebel reported that there were two videos, around 20 seconds each, that showed Flanagan approaching Parker, Ward and Gardner.

“He circles around them and points a gun at them; none appear to notice. The camera angle drops slightly as he fumbles with something. He then raises the gun, the muzzle visible in the frame, and fires at Parker, who screams and begins to run,” the news outlet said.

Around 11:30 a.m. ET, WDBJ reported that police were in pursuit of Flanagan on I-66 in Fauquier County, Va., when he shot himself.

It was also around this time that ABC News reported that between Tuesday night and Wednesday morning, a 23-page fax had come over from an individual identifying himself as “Bryce Williams.” It was turned over to authorities. In it, Flanagan said the June 17 church shootings in Charleston, S.C., pushed him over the edge, and that he identified with mass murderers Sueng-Hui Cho, the Virginia Tech killer, and with Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, the shooters responsible for the 1999 Columbine High School massacre.

Authorities took Flanagan to an unnamed medical facility, where he was initially reported to be in critical condition before being pronounced dead at around 1:30 p.m. ET, according to published reports.

The shooting reverberated across the television community. Mike Cavender, executive director of the Radio Television Digital News Association issued the following statement:

“RTDNA is horrified and saddened by the senseless deaths of Alison Parker and Adam Ward, the two WDBJ employees. “While the shootings are under investigation, our most sincere sympathies go out to their families and friends and all who worked with them at WDBJ.”

Gordon Smith, president and CEO of the National Association of Broadcasters, said, “Today’s news of the tragic murders of broadcast journalists Alison Parker and Adam Ward is heartbreaking and horrifying. These were two young journalists who were simply trying to serve and inform their communities. Our broken hearts go out to the families of Alison and Adam, to the staff at WDBJ, and to the employees of Schurz Communications.”

The Communications Workers of America also weighed in, saying the shooting “struck close to home” for its members.

“The threats journalists face on the job every day do not normally include their coworkers. But tragically, work-related shootings and other violence are not uncommon in the United States. Our members in the media sector and all of the Communications Workers of America are gravely concerned about this issue and committed to helping build safe workplaces.

“Whatever the shooter’s motive, two young people who were looking forward to long and happy lives are gone today. We join with WDBJ, the Roanoke community and all those who loved Alison and Adam in mourning their loss.”

Broadcasting & Cable has more details and reactions here.

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