Media Coverage of Virginia Tech Shootings Sparks Controversy and Scrutiny

In the days following the April 16, 2007 Virginia Tech shooting, media outlets scrambled to cover the event from every possible angle. One, NBC, found itself part of the story when the network received a package from shooter Seung-Hui Cho, apparently mailed mid-spree.

The network received the package in the mail two days after the shooting, on Wednesday, April 18. It contained 29 digital photos, text and a 10-minute video DVD from Cho, some of which the network aired that evening on its “NBC Nightly News with Brian Williams.” According to the Associated Press (AP), other networks quickly followed by taping the video from NBC and replaying it later in their own news broadcasts that night.

By the next day, however, a growing public backlash caused most television networks to stop running the video. Family members of victims cancelled scheduled appearances on NBC’s “Today” show, and Virginia State Police Col. Steve Flaherty was quoted by the AP saying, “‘I just hate that a lot of people not used to seeing that type of image had to see it.”

By late Thursday morning FOX announced it would no longer air clips from the Cho videos, saying on air, “sometimes you change your mind.” A memo sent to staffers from the channel’s Senior Vice President John Moody read, “We believe that 18 hours after they were first broadcast and distributed via the Internet, our news viewers have had the opportunity to see the images and draw their own conclusions about them. We see no reason to continue assaulting the public with these disturbing and demented images.” It continued, however, “We reserve the right to resume airing them as news warrants.”

Also on Thursday, NBC and ABC said they would severely restrict their use of the videos, and CBS and CNN said producers would need to get permission from their bosses before running more of the clips.

As the AP noted, however, those decisions came over 12 hours after the images were first widely broadcast, and they would have been “used less anyway” as time went on.

NBC defended its decision to air portions of the tapes, images and text, saying in a statement, “The decision to run this video was reached by virtually every news organization in the world, as evidenced by coverage on television, on Web sites and in newspapers. We have covered this story -- and our unique role in it -- with extreme sensitivity, underscored by our devoted efforts to remember and honor the victims and heroes of this tragic incident.”

The AP quoted ABC News spokesman Jeffrey Schneider saying, “It has value as breaking news but then becomes practically pornographic as it is just repeated ad nauseam.”

The wire service also quoted Jon Klein, president of CNN U.S., saying, “As breaking news, it’s pertinent to our understanding of why this was done. Then, once the public has seen the material and digested it, then it’s fair to say, ‘How much should we be showing it?’ I think it’s to the credit of news organizations that they are dialing back.”

Members of the public left messages alternately criticizing and supporting NBC for airing the material on Brian Williams’ NBC blog, TheDailyNightly. One person wrote, “I am totally appalled that NBC News has chosen to broadcast the videos of a psychopath according to his wishes and thereby possibly encourage other disturbed individuals to attempt to gain infamy through similar or copycat acts. I find this to be irresponsible and particularly disrespectful to the families of the victims.”

But others agreed with NBC’s decision. Someone identifying him or herself as “Chris” wrote, “As a news organization NBC was obligated to present the information to the public. They showed restraint in not showing more than they did. This material answers the question, ‘Why?’ NBC would have abdicated its responsibility if it had not discolsed [sic] this information.”

Slate writer Jack Shafer was similarly inclined in his April 19 column. He wrote, “NBC News needn’t apologize to anybody for originally airing the Cho videos and pictures. The Virginia Tech slaughter is an ugly story, but the five W’s of journalism—who, what, where, when, and why—demand that journalists ask the question ‘why?’ even if they can’t adequately answer it.” He continued, “If you’re interested in knowing why Cho did what he did, you want to see the videos and photos and read from the transcripts. If you’re not interested, you should feel free to avert your eyes.”

Canadian Broadcasting Corporation’s (CBC) Editor in Chief of News Tony Burman was critical of NBC and other stations which aired the footage. In a column at cbc.ca, he wrote, “At the CBC, we debated the issue throughout the evening and made the decision that we would not broadcast any video or audio of this bizarre collection. On CBC Television, Radio and CBC.ca, we would report the essence of what the killer was saying, but not do what he so clearly hoped all media would do. To decide otherwise - in our view - would be to risk copycat killings.”

Burman continued, “I think [NBC’s] handling of these tapes was a mistake. As I watched them last night, sickened as I’m sure most viewers were, I imagined what kind of impact this broadcast would have on similarly deranged people. In horrific but real ways, this is their 15 seconds of fame. I had this awful and sad feeling that there were parents watching these excerpts on NBC who were unaware that they will lose their children in some future copycat killing triggered by these broadcasts.”

The full text of his column is available online at http://www.cbc.ca/news/about/burman/letters/2007/04/a_story_of_victims_and_issues.html.

NBC News President Steve Capus and Brian Williams appeared on “The Oprah Winfrey Show” on April 24 to defend their decision to air the material. “Sometimes good journalism is bad public relations,” Capus said. “These are very difficult decisions.”

And on April 30, The Washington Post’s Howard Kurtz quoted Capus saying, “I’m stunned that people bang down our door at one moment, demanding we release it uninterrupted and without filter – then question whether it should have been released in the first place …I’m just stunned at the depths of absurdity and hypocrisy.”

Silha Director and Professor of Media Ethics and Law at the University of Minnesota Jane Kirtley was quoted in the April 27 edition of UMNnews, stating, “I think the shooter’s video is news. People had an intense interest in knowing about this individual, and the tape was his vision of himself.” She also said, “The media should always treat victims and families with respect, but victims’ families shouldn’t have veto power over whether something like this is aired. Where do we stop in accommodating people who object to this? I say turn off the TV or hit the mute button.”

The same article also quoted Chair of the University of Minnesota’s Communication Studies Department Edward Schiappa discussing concerns that media coverage might encourage other people to model their behavior after Cho’s. “A number of empirical studies have proven that media coverage serves as a ‘priming effect’ for aggressive individuals and increases the probability of subsequent violent behavior.” But he added, “Let me be clear that we cannot avoid any and all stories that might lead to copycat behavior.”

Kirtley concluded, “Telling tough stories is part of what the media are about. You have to make a judgment about the public interest. Concern about people who might copy can’t be the driving factor.”

NBC was also criticized for the way it distributed the contents of the package to competitors. It affixed its logo prominently to all clips of the images and on the video and sent out a list of rules, which included, “No Internet use. No archival use. Do not resell,” and “Mandatory credit, NBC News.”

An April 20 New York Times article noted that Paul Friedman, the vice president of CBS News, “said NBC had not done enterprise reporting to come into possession of this material, but had ‘picked it up in its mailroom.’” It continued, “And while the rules about usage were fairly standard for the television news business, Mr. Friedman said that ‘in this instance it seemed inappropriate’ for NBC to be so proprietary about material of such sensitive nature.”

Scrutiny of the media went beyond the decision to air Cho’s video and photos and extended to the media’s coverage of the event as a whole.

Advertising Age’s Simon Dumenco compared the various networks’ graphic icons displayed in the corner of the screen during coverage of the event, writing in a column that the “insta-branding was out of control.”

He noted that during CNN’s “Anderson Cooper 360,” “CNN’s animated MASSACRE AT VIRGINIA TECH logo throbbed and twirled with all the subtlety of an “American Idol” bumper. … A gaudy, twitchy animation effect caused the MASSACRE type to briefly explode outside of its red box, as did the AT VIRGINA TECH type a moment later. It took me a couple of rewind passes on my DVR to realize that the grainy gray background behind the twitching type showed a gun sight’s crosshairs floating in slow motion across the screen.”

Dumenco also discussed FOX and CBS’ graphics, before noting that “ABC, in a minimalist mood, tagged its on-site reporting for ‘Good Morning America’ with the words BLACKSBURG, VIRGINIA, and, in the lower left-hand corner, appallingly, a stand-alone graphic of a gun sight’s crosshairs in white against a blood-red background.”

He concluded his column by stating, “We’ve come to the point at which murderous psychopaths and TV news executives are of the same mind when it comes to human tragedy: It’s a branding opportunity.” The full text is available online at http://adage.com/print?article_id=116190.

But (Louisville, Ky.) Courier-Journal columnist Tom Dorsey wrote, “It’s not about ratings, though. The people reporting the stories are doing their best with a difficult topic, inching along day by day, grasping for the next journalistic foothold.” He continued, “There is an unintended benefit to this kind of continuous coverage. It provides a place where people can go to feel a part of a national sense of sorrow and puzzlement.”

In a separate column published April 17, Slate’s Jack Shafer noted that NBC and ABC had both left condolence messages on Virginia Tech students’ profile pages at the social networking Web site Facebook and added that if anyone knew Cho “we have anchors and producers on campus that would love to meet with you” (ABC), and “We have producers and camera crews nearby ready to talk to anyone who can supply information about him and his movements leading up to the tragedy” (NBC).

Shafer concluded, “There’s a thin line between responsible journalism and outrageous sensationalism, and bloodfests like the one in Blacksburg tend to erase it. If the networks weren’t pinging Facebook for leads, if the New York Times weren’t compiling a “Portraits of Grief” for the Blacksburg kids right now—as I bet they are— [Bulletin Editor’s note: The Times did eventually run obituaries of each of the victims, similar to the “Portraits of Grief” it ran after 9/11] and if the story came to a close tonight on Anderson Cooper’s show, readers and viewers would riot. As reporters intrude into the lives of the grieving to mine the story, they should be guided more by a sense of etiquette than ethics. If they don’t risk going too far, they’ll never go far enough.”

For a further discussion of the media coverage, see “Silha Forum Examines Media Coverage of Tragedies” on page 38 of this issue of the Silha Bulletin.

– Ashley Ewald, Silha Fellow and Bulletin Editor

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