Media ethics and psychology experts have been in great demand for their opinions on whether the American TV network NBC should have shown the video they received from Cho Seung-Hui, justifying his planned rampage. If you google ‘Cho video public interest’, the first page of hits includes reports on this issue by Matthew Stannard of the San Francisco Chronicle, Nick Fasulo and Jay Murdock at wlwt.com, Paul J Gough of the Hollywood Reporter, and this AFP report running on variouos websites. These stories alone contain enough expert evidence for a trial.
Evidence for the Defense
Steve Capus (NBC News president):
“We have decided to show people a glimpse of that because we believe we have an obligation to give people a glimpse inside the mind of this killer… He is responsible for a hateful, despicable act, and as soon as it happened, people asked the questions: ‘Why? What led this person to do that?’ I don’t think we’ll ever truly know, but I do believe that this is as close as we will ever come.”
Richard Wald (‘former president of NBC News and now professor of journalism at Columbia University’):
“There are rights that the public has too. People want a sense of who is this guy and where does he come from and how do you account for it. And they’re entitled to know.”
Jerry Ceppos (‘formerly executive editor of the San Jose Mercury News and now a fellow in media ethics at the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics at Santa Clara University’):
“I get uncomfortable when the media overthinks issues. In most cases, I’d rather share the information with the public and let them decide,” he said. “The journalist shouldn’t be in the position of playing God and deciding what people need to see and what people don’t need to see.”
Dr. Randall Patnode (‘a media ethics professor at Xavier’):
âWhenever we run into these situations, there is a balancing act between the publicâs right to know and need to know about a significant event… Under the particular circumstance, running the video is understandable. It gives us a lot of insight.â
Evidence for the Prosecution
James Garbarino (‘a psychology professor at Loyola University in Chicago and author of Lost Boys: Why Our Sons Turn Violent and How We Can Save Them‘):
“They’re already suicidal, they’re already depressed, they have a grievance, and one of the attractive things about doing what he did is you resolve everything at once: You go out in a blaze of glory and make your statement… The risk of adding to this and providing validation to me ought to sort of trump the educational value of it.”
Dr. Karl W. Stukenberg (‘director of psychological services center at Xavier University’):
âMedia attention and publication of materials may be experienced as glorification… Certainly Cho was interested enough in âgloryâ to send the materials to the media.â
Tom Rosenstiel (‘director of the Project for Excellence in Journalism’):
“The risk here is: are you allowing Cho to taunt and haunt people? Are you adding to the trauma or are you helping the public get an insight into how this can happen in their society?”
Clint Van Zandt (‘former profiler with the Federal Bureau of Investigation’):
“He wants to be able to reach his hand out of the grave and grab us by the throat and make us listen to him one more time…”
Showing the video is beneficial (1) satisfies the public’s curiosity and (2) increases awareness of disturbed people, which might cause individuals like Cho to be identified earlier and be either helped or quarantined. Against that, showing the video is harmful because it aids the criminal in achieving his objectives, which (1) increases the hurt and injustice to families and friends of the victims, and (2) encourages other potential mass-murderers who might be partly motivated by a desire to vent their rage on national television.
A few experts tried to have it both ways, implying that the contra arguments only apply to showing the video and pictures too many times. According to Tom Rosensteil (‘director of the Washington-based Project for Excellence in Journalism’),
“There’s an overriding public interest in trying to understand this young man and this tragedy… If the video is no longer telling you anything new, and it’s just being run to keep you watching, then you are actually serving the need of this killer, who is trying to haunt and taunt us.”
But this is fudge. You are serving the killer if you show it all, not just if you show it gratuitosuly. The killer, if he were alive, would hardly be thinking ‘Rats! they stopped showing the video as soon as it stopped telling viewers anything new!’ If there’s a good case against showing the video then it’s a case against showing it all rather than merely a case against showing it too much.
My gut feeling is that on balance NBC shouldn’t have shown Cho’s video, but it is not easy to weigh the arguments. If the online opinion surveys are anything to go by, I’m in the minority: fifty percent agree with the broadcast and thirty-eight disagree, according to one that I looked at. It’s unreasonable to expect commercial broadcasters to err on the side of restraint with story that is obviously a big ratings grabber. Nor do I favour more regulation. But it is a dilemma that will confront broadcasters more and more frequently now that technology makes it so easy for a monster to produce and direct his own 15 minutes of fame, giving his crimes whatever spin he sees fit, and to send it to the world on a CD (you don’t even need the internet). It’s almost as easy as buying the gun and carrying out the massacre itself.