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Social media: Illuminating, inspiring, terrifying

The fatal shooting of two journalists Wednesday highlighted the twisted throne that social media now holds.

WDBJ reporter Alison Parker, photojournalist Adam Ward and their interviewee Vicki Gardner were shot on live television in Virginia by a former WDBJ employee, Vester Lee Flanagan.

What unfolded afterward was a bizarre and disturbing chain of events that is a perfect caricature of what news has become thanks to Facebook, Twitter and other social media outlets.

Social media is how I discovered the news, and it was likely how you discovered it too.I was woken by multiple breaking news alerts on my phone, read a brief on The Washington Post and immediately turned to my Twitter feed. Scrolling furiously, I read details of the shooting in unison with millions of others around the world.

A suspect was named by dozens of outlets simultaneously, and one noted that the suspected gunman had a Twitter account. I clicked the link and was greeted by video of the murder itself. Flanagan posted surreal videos of the shooting along with several deranged messages before the account was suspended.

News organizations instantly delivered a flurry of details, updates and outlets issued retraction after retraction in the information melee. I held my breath every second. Flanagan would later die more than 100 miles away from the scene after shooting himself while fleeing.

News is no longer about answering the question of “What happened?” Instead, it has turned into “What’s happening right this very second?” This isn’t anything new, but the ability to witness murder in first-person has elevated the medium to entirely new levels.

This new era of information gathering has the power to place you right into a killer’s frame of mind and perspective. Digesting news today may not only inform you of what happened, but it might just disturb you in nightmarish fashion.

Is this something that we want?

Stumbling onto the profile of “Bryce Williams,” Flanagan’s on-air identity, it just felt like a dark alley, someplace very wrong and somewhere I shouldn’t have been.

Some news outlets, such as the New York Daily News, have exploited this disturbing era without limits for its shock value, but what’s slowly being left behind is the tragedy of two journalists senselessly killed; the world’s focus directed at Flanagan instead of the lives of Parker and Ward.

I can’t help but visualize the final moments before the shooting over and over again, a reporter and photographer interviewing a person before an outstretched gun is raised, a ball of flames emerged from the tip, followed by screams.

Parker and Ward were simply doing their jobs. They were doing my job. The moments before the shooting were a routine scenario that reporters and photographers do every single day.

I’m scared.

This form of news scares me because this brand of reporting has no limits. The bar is raised seemingly every day and what this kind of news did was not just inform me of what happened, I’m a news photographer for KSEE 24 and CBS 47 and it made me terrified to go to work.

Edward R. Murrow was an iconic broadcast journalist whose radio reports of World War II defined the power of information in his time. In a famous speech he delivered this message regarding what news can be, stating “this instrument can teach, it can illuminate; yes, and even it can inspire. But it can do so only to the extent that humans are determined to use it to those ends.”

Indeed, the ability of information to inspire, help and make a difference in this world is exactly what I love about journalism. And as scared as I am today, I will go back to work tomorrow.

Murrow’s era was of radio and television. Today, the paradigm has shifted and many consume news through social media. And while this medium holds the same power as television to teach, illuminate and inspire, Wednesday’s tragedy demonstrated that social media now has the ability to terrify you in new and disturbing ways if we let it.

Is this something that we want?