Sometimes a news organization must make a really tough decision—and no matter what you do, some people will be angry and say you made a mistake. Our job is to “report the news” even when it is unpopular, uncomfortable or even when it hurts innocent people who are already suffering.
Consider the decision by NBC News to broadcast the so-called “manifesto” by the deranged Virginia Tech killer, Cho Seung-Hui. It first aired at 6:30 Wednesday night after hours of discussion, debate and negotiation with law enforcement authorities. NBC News decided to release a portion of the video, photos and writings of Cho. In opening the broadcast, NBC Nightly News anchor Brian Williams said, “We are sensitive to how this will be seen by those affected and we know we are in effect airing the words of a murderer here tonight…so much of it is so profane, so downright gross and incomprehensible. We tried to edit carefully for broadcast tonight.”
It was “profane” and it was “gross.” It was also scary and painful to watch. One could only imagine what it was like for the families and friends of the 32 Virginia Tech victims murdered in cold blood on campus. Some of the family members decided not to appear on the “Today” show to express their displeasure with the network’s decision. Forensic psychiatrist, Dr. Michael Wellner, called on NBC News as well as other broadcast and Internet outlets to “stop showing this video now.” Wellner said showing the video was a “social catastrophe.” Others argued that showing visual images of Cho could potentially encourage others to engage in copycat killings.
I’m convinced that NBC News president Steve Capus and those involved in this “tough call,” as he described it, considered these and other points of view. Additionally, NBC News immediately notified law enforcement authorities when the package was delivered to Rockefeller Plaza in New York. NBC News turned the originals over to the authorities in case they could help in the investigation. They also agreed to hold off airing the contents of Cho’s package until given the okay by the police at 4:30 p.m. on Wednesday.
Still, some disagree with NBC’s decision, which is understandable. But there is another side to this complex media and moral dilemma. Consider these questions and issues: Was the information in the package newsworthy? Did the public have a right to know what was in it—even if some say they didn’t want to see or hear it? Was there value—as uncomfortable and creepy as it was—to see Cho in his tortured state? Could airing the video spark a meaningful discussion as to how such a tragedy could be avoided in the future?
With all these and other issues and questions at play, broadcasting this material was the most appropriate thing to do. Not a perfect choice, but the right one given the alternatives.
Of course there are legitimate concerns about the degree of coverage once the video and pictures started airing on Wednesday night. Media saturation is a product of the 24/7 news cycle and the intense competition between news organizations. Wall-to-wall coverage of Cho’s sick image was featured by every news outlet. On Wednesday night it was virtually non-stop. You couldn’t get away from it. I have three sons ages 2, 4 and 14, and my wife and I tried to keep the little ones away while trying to explain it to the smart but vulnerable teenager. How do you explain senseless brutal violence, particularly when it takes place in a school?
The same thing happened with Columbine and 9/11. Consider that the 9/11 video of the two planes crashing into the World Trade Center was brutal and extremely difficult to watch. For grieving family members, it must have been excruciating. But no one doubts that it was a massive news story that changed the face of American life and culture. The video should have been shown, like the video of Osama bin Laden talking about “why” he orchestrated this unprovoked and devastating attack on the United States. Documenting history, as brutal as it can be, is part of our job. In November of 1963, if any one of the three major networks had film of Lee Harvey Oswald trying to explain why he killed John F. Kennedy, the public had a right to see and hear it, even if it may have disgusted us on some level.
With events that are so violent, graphic and painful to watch—that feature brutal killings and the demented thinking of those who kill—news organizations have a responsibility to tell the story as best they can with the information they have at the time. But they need to do it with discretion, sound judgment and sensitivity. In the Virginia Tech case, a huge piece of that story was delivered to the doorstep of NBC News. The vast majority of news organizations would have made the same decision that NBC News made. But again, using discretion as to how often the material would be aired (my personal opinion is that less would have been more in this case); airing it beginning at 6:30 p.m. Wednesday and making it available to other media outlets was appropriate.
If Cho’s video continues to be broadcast by media outlets in “Anna Nicole Smith-style” 24/7 coverage, if we as journalists stop telling the larger story of the victims at Virginia Tech, we would be wrong. Striking an appropriate balance in such a terrible tragedy is nearly impossible, but is still something we must try to do.
By airing it, it has made NBC News, as well as the others who followed, unpopular with some. But having everyone like you and what you do isn’t our job as journalists. Our job is to report the news—even the news that is “disgusting” or “profane” or potentially painful to some who witnessed it in such a personal way. My heart goes out to the relatives and friends of all the victims at Virginia Tech. Many of them will never accept or understand the airing of Cho’s deranged, premeditated “manifesto,” but it needed to be seen. It was too compelling, albeit difficult, to watch. It was “news” and that is the profession we have chosen.
One hopes that something good comes out of the coverage of the Virginia Tech tragedy, including the controversial airing of the Cho message. If this discussion helps us identify other potentially sick, isolated and dangerous students on campuses across this country, it will have been worth it. It still comes down to a “very tough call.”
Write to Steve Adubato at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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