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What is Role of Media During Tragedy?

Several national news networks will be greatly decreasing or altogether eliminating images of VA Tech shooter Cho Seung-Hui from thier broadcasts, the Pioneer Press reports in an article from Associated Press reporter David Bauder.

As you may recall, Cho sent NBC News a package with videos and messages that arrived at their offices posthumously. NBC aired some of the footage, as did many other networks. The pictures were widely available on the Internet, as well.

The decision to pull the material from the air was made, apparently, in sympathy for the victims' families.

"It has value as breaking news," said ABC News spokesman Jeffrey Schneider, "but then becomes practically pornographic as it is just repeated ad nauseam."

There are ethical questions towards both putting the material out there and pulling it. The images have been described as disgusting, and are certainly disturbing to anyone familiar with the VA Tech tragedy, so should that have overridden the news organizations' instinct to show the public what was in their possession?

As far as pulling the material, is it the media's responsibility to decide what is too disturbing for its audience?

I can't help but think back to the coverage of 9/11, where several outlets repeatedly aired footage of people jumping from the twin towers to escape the fires inside. It was shocking to see, but just hearing about it would not have done justice to the enormity of the decision these people made to jump.

It is also interesting to note that NBC also gave the package to the police before they showed the images and writings in broadcast.

I have heard in several classes a form of this quote: "The media's job is not to police." If this is the case, why did NBC hand over the package from Cho before telling its audience?

At the same time, many of us have heard that "the media (especially newspapers) are a public service." If that is true, it gives a lot more implicit power to the media. If the media are supposed to serve the public by providing news and analysis, the media would also decide what is important enough to be reported on. It can, then, decide how to report it, how much should be reported, what the audience should think of it, etc.

It is certainly enlightening to see how the media responds to events such as those at VA Tech. I believe it tells a lot more about the media's values than textbooks.