Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Journalism Ethics & The Virginia Tech Massacre


On the morning of Monday, April 16th, 2007, the bloodiest school massacre in US history took place at Virginia Polytechnic Institute. The gunman, a 23 year-old senior undergraduate named Seung-Hui Cho, went on a shooting rampage. When it was all over, 32 students and teachers were dead, 25 were wounded, and Cho himself had committed suicide. 

After murdering his first two victims in West Ambler Johnson Hall dormitory, Cho returned to his room and gathered materials including videos, pictures, and a manifesto of over 1800 words. While on his way across campus, Cho stopped at a post office and mailed the materials to NBC News. He then continued on to Norris Hall, a building of classrooms and offices. There he chained the exits of the building, then went from classroom to classroom, shooting teachers and students. Days later, when NBC News received the package from Cho, they faced a very serious ethical dilemma: should they air Cho's material? Eventually they did air it, sparking enormous controversy within the journalism community.

Over three years have passed since the massacre took place, yet there is still great debate regarding not only the dilemma that NBC News faced, but also the manner in which the national media covered the shooting.

Media Coverage of the Massacre

The manner in which the national news media covered the Virginia Tech Massacre left a bad taste in the mouths of many students who survived the ordeal, and also with the families of the victims. Reporters and news trucks moved into the area practically overnight, invading the space of those who were already emotionally distressed. 

There is at least one reported incident in which a female journalist found her way into a secured dormitory by posing as a student, and sought out survivors for interviews. In this situation, it is very clear that this was unethical; this was a classic case of the masquerading variety of deception, which is widely frowned upon. When surveys regarding the use of masquerading were conducted among journalists, seventy percent of those who participated believed that it was never justified. (1) In this case, with people who have just suffered incredible strain and hardship, it makes the case against such practices that much stronger.

There are also instances of reporters acting hastily upon unreliable sources and leads. Michael Sneed, a columnist for the Chicago Sun-Times, mistakenly used a source who claimed that Seung-Hui Cho was a Chinese National. In his column, Sneed wrote, "The 25 year-old man being investigated for the deadliest carnage in US history reportedly arrived in San Francisco on a United Airlines flight on Aug. 7, 2006, on a visa issued in Shanghai, the source said. Investigators had not linked him to any terrorist groups, the source added." (2). Of course, this information proved later to false. In situations such as these when the pressure to get a scoop is so very high, inaccuracies tend to occur. Marvin Kalb, a former NBC and CBS reporter said, "The best of journalism doesn't sit on it's ass; it produces copy." But he also does not advocate hasty reporting, stating that there is a distinction between  a story that is ready to be printed or broadcast and one that needs to be held. (3). It is obvious that Sneed was impulsive in his reporting of this case. In addition, using anonymous sources is also frowned upon, particularly for the reason of accountability; when a journalist uses an anonymous source, who is to say that the source is real, and not just one that the journalist has conjured up?

The use of citizen-journalists and bloggers to report the news also came under heavy fire following the shooting. Because these people were on the scene before any professional journalists were, they were able to report breaking news almost immediately following the shooting. This sometimes forces the professionals into a tight corner, placing extreme pressure upon them to update and confirm those reports. In an article written for the website The American Editor, Keegan Kyle touches on the subject: "Although breaking a new development can help Web traffic initially, inaccuracies or negligence can damage a newspaper's long-term reputation. Bob Steele, the Nelson Poynter School for Journalism Values at the Poynter Institute, also warns editors not to bite the bait of competition. Shortcuts to the editing and reporting process, he says, can undermine accuracy and fairness, producing a large number of mistakes and corrections. 'That's happened before with the Columbine shootings for instance,' Steele says. 'Anytime you are scrambling to tell a story, there's a danger of hurting accuracy.'" (4)

Media sensationalism of the massacre also added to the growing disgust that the public and the victims were feeling. The need and desire to examine every angle of a story can sometimes go too far. A prime example of this was the media's excessive analysis of two words that were reportedly written on Cho's arm in red ink: Ismail Ax. In his column in the Brisbane Times, Eric Benderoff wrote," ALL at once, the world went looking for the meaning of 'Ismail Ax'. Almost as soon as the detail was reported, the blogosphere filled with theories. Bloggers speculated on a link to Islam or to literature, offered their opinions and millions read the commentaries, according to the website www.technorati.com, a search engine for searching blogs." (5) Because it made for such a compelling story, the news media picked up on two key words in those theories: Islamic Terrorism. In this case, it seemed that the media wanted Cho to be linked to Islamic Terrorists, and their coverage of the case seems to support my theory. The power of the media to sway the public in one direction or the other is very apparent here, and what makes it unethical is the fact that not all of the facts of the case had surfaced. In addition to this type of sensationalism, there were small details such as graphics used on television. "He [Simon Dumenco] 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, twitching animation effect caused the MASSACRE type to briefly explode outside its red box, as did the AT VIRGINIA 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." (6) Even small details such as this seem to make the general public more critical of the media in general; it shows a lack of sensitivity and compassion for those who suffered in this horrific tragedy. I have always been aware of this type of sensationalism, and have certainly found it disturbing when news networks felt the need to label disasters and crises with melodramatic hyperboles. In their defense, however, from a marketing standpoint, it is those headlines and hyperboles that grab a reader or viewer. I blame the tremendous competition between the networks for this problem.

The media also came under fire for using Facebook to try and get sources for interviews. "In a separate column published April 17th, Slate's  Jack Schafer noted that NBC and ABC had both left condolence messages on Virginia Tech students' profile pages at the social networking 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 [Cho] and his movements leading up to the tragedy.' (NBC)." (7) To many, including myself, I would consider this a classic invasion of privacy. How does a reporter expect to get a source for an interview by violating a source's privacy? This also shows a lack of compassion; the condolence messages given were obviously a mere ruse to obtain information.

NBC's Dilemma

When Seung-Hui Cho mailed the package of pictures, videos, and written material to NBC News, it was clear that what he had in mind was for the world to see the reasons behind his rage. Cho was obviously a very disturbed and conflicted individual, and when one watches the videos that he made, it is very clear that he wanted to be famous, and for the media to sensationalize his rampage. In a way, he was a very clever young man; he knew that when faced with the decision to air his manifesto, NBC would be forced into giving in. There doesn't seem to have been any other course of action in this case. Many people, including survivors and families of the victims, were very critical of NBC's decision. In their eyes, two things were wrong with airing Cho's material: 1) Many of the victims felt that seeing Cho's pictures, and hearing his chilling words forced them to relive the nightmare; in several of the photographs, Cho is posing with his handguns as if he were in the act of shooting them. These terrifying images were no doubt very similar to what many of the victims saw as he shot them to death. 2) Many are of the opinion that by allowing the gunman's voice to broadcast, the media would be granting him his dying wish to be famous, and also opening the floodgates to copycats. 

The dilemma that so critically faced NBC was nothing new to many news networks. There was great controversy surrounding The San Francisco Chronicle's decision to publish letters from the Zodiac killer. The New York Daily News was also the center of a mass criticism when they reprinted letters from the Son of Sam. 

Steve Kapas, who was the president of NBC at the time, appeared on "The Oprah Winfrey Show" with Brian Williams several days following the shooting. When asked to explain NBC's decision to air the material, Kapas said, "Sometimes good journalism is public relations. These are very difficult decisions." (8) Many also agreed with Kapas, noting that NBC was really only acting in the best interest of the general public. Jack Schafer, a writer for Slate, wrote the following in his April 19th column: "NBC needn't apologize to anyone 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." (9) It has also been argued among many journalists that airing the Cho material was vital to the well-being of the general public; by seeing that the responsible party for this horrible tragedy was a lone gunman who was obviously mentally disturbed, people can eliminate the possibility of a conspiracy, a scenario in which it is virtually impossible to track down all of the the conspirators. In addition, there is a feeling of security knowing that the responsible party is no longer a threat. I personally agree very strongly with this argument, and have come to the conclusion that the public wants information, but will always be critical of the manner in which it is collected and delivered to them; it is a classic Catch-22.

Others, like Canadian Broadcasting Corporation's Editor in Chief of News Tony Burman, disagreed with NBC's final decision. "I think [NBC's] handling of these tapes was a mistake. As I watched them last night, sickened as 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 minutes 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." (10)

While there seems to be a majority of journalists who agree wit4h NBC's decision to air the Cho material, there is a great deal of argument regarding the repetitive nature of its airing. As soon as NBC made the material available to other news networks, the floodgates opened; many of these networks have been accused of using the images as "video wallpaper". Things were far more excessive with the 24-hour news networks like CNN which have large amounts of time to fill, especially during those times when new developments were slow to make their way into the newsroom. Charles Warner, who writes for a website called Media Curmudgeon, summed up the excess airing of the material by saying, "TV has much greater impact than any other medium because it engages viewers' emotions through its blend of sight, sound, motion, and emotion. Thus videos of airplanes crashing into buildings or a killer's deadly ramblings leave much more dramatic and lasting impressions. And it is these impressions that magnify the perception of excess." (11)

I feel that news organizations are placed in a no-win situation when given this type of information. There certainly has to be a dedication to the practice of good ethics within journalism, but how far is too far? Is there some type of unseen line in the sand? On April 30th, The Washington Post's Howard Kurtz quoted NBC's president Steve Kapas saying, "I'm stunned that people bang down our door at one moment, demanding that 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." (12) Jane Kirtley, who is Silha Director and a Professor of Media Ethics and Law at the University of Minnesota, had a very interesting opinion on the subject. She was quoted in an April 27th edition of UNM News as saying, "The media should always treat victims' 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." (13)


After researching and analyzing all of the information regarding the media coverage in this case, I have come to one conclusion: there is no definite answer as to what is the right or wrong way to collect information and report it. There seems to be a difference of opinion about all of the ethical dilemmas that each news organization faced. As journalists, we are charged with the responsibility of delivering news to the public. I feel that the public, however, should be less critical of the manner in which it is presented to them. I have long been a critic of the news media, but now that I am directly involved, I have certainly come to see the other side to this very tricky task that we have taken on. As I have stated previously, news organizations are in a no-win situation; people want the information, yet will always remain critical of the manner in which it collected and delivered to them.

Works Cited

 (1), (3) Smith, R.F. (2003). Groping for Ethics in Journalism. Ames: Blackwell Publishing Company.  

(2) Misleads, M.S. (2007, April 19). Killers From China: What Did Michael Sneed Say? Retrieved June 14, 2010 , from Letters From China: http://www.voyage.typepad.com/china/2007/04/killers_from_ch.html

(4) Kyle, K. (2007, October 3). Ethics Debate. Retrieved June 19, 2010, from the American Editor:

(5) Benderoff, E. (2007, April 19) Theories abound about meaning of words on killer's arm. Retrieved June 19, 2010, from Brisbane Times: http://brisbanetimes.com.au/news/world

(6) , (7), (8), (9), (10), (12), (13) Ewald, A. (2009), October 21) Media Coverage of Virginia Tech Shooting Sparks Controversy and Scrutiny. Retrieved June 19, 2010, from CLA Publications:

(11) Warner, C. (2007, April 21). Media Coverage of the Virginia Tech Massacre. Retrieved June 19, 2010, from Media Curmudgeon: http://www.mediacurmudgeon.com/archives/2007/04/media-coverage.html