NBC faulted over tapes
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NEW YORK -- NBC's decision to broadcast portions of Cho Seung-Hui's angry rants triggered a storm of condemnation yesterday from viewers and victims' relatives, illuminating the treacherous middle ground between exposure and exploitation in a fast-moving news cycle.
A day after receiving a package containing the Virginia Tech gunman's profanity-laced writings and videos -- mailed shortly before his second round of shootings -- NBC drastically curtailed its use of the images, as did most of its television brethren. But the rapid dissemination of the materials and subsequent backlash triggered a debate about what constitutes news -- and when to hold back.
While media ethicists generally approved of NBC's handling of the tapes, the editor in chief of the Canadian Broadcasting Corp. called the network's airing of the footage a "mistake," warning that it could lead to copycat massacres.
But Al Tompkins, who teaches broadcast and online ethics at The Poynter Institute in St. Petersburg, Fla., said not airing the material at all "would have been an easy thing to do.
"People would have said, 'Good for you.' But that doesn't illuminate us. That doesn't enlighten us. That only protects us," he said. "And the job of the journalist is not to protect us from the truth; it's to tell us the truth, no matter how repugnant it is."
For others closer to Monday's killings, the broadcast of Mr. Cho's diatribes felt like a new wound. Col. Steven Flaherty, superintendent of the Virginia state police, said he was "disappointed" by the network's decision to publish some materials. The parents of two slain students canceled an appearance on the "Today" show in protest, and MSNBC.com's online message boards were swamped with more than 3,000 messages on the topic -- the majority denouncing the network.
"What is the standard?" asked one writer from Maryland. "Will we next be seeing beheadings and full-length terrorist propaganda films? There is a fine line between news and exploitation, between the public's need to know and tastelessness. NBC crossed it."
NBC anchor Brian Williams, who participated in the internal discussions about how to handle the material, acknowledged that the images inadvertently took the form of "video wallpaper" in the initial hours until executives set restrictions on their use. (Wednesday night, network officials limited the broadcast of the video to 10 percent of airtime, or six minutes an hour on MSNBC, the network's cable channel.)
But Mr. Williams defended the network's dissemination of the footage. "I don't know of a reputable news organization in this country that, upon receipt of that package, would have ... slipped it in a drawer and not shared its contents," the anchor said on his video blog. "It is beyond disturbing. It is beyond horrifying. It is also news, and news is our role, however unpleasant the stories are at times."
Matt Lauer, anchor of NBC's morning "Today" show, told viewers, "There are some big differences of opinion right within this news division as to whether we should be airing this stuff at all."
The network first broadcast excerpts of the 28 QuickTime videos that Mr. Cho sent during Wednesday's "NBC Nightly News," along with images of the 23-year-old thrusting handguns at the camera. The material -- along with an 1,800-word invective -- had arrived in the mail that morning, addressed simply to "NBC."
The unexpected scoop handed NBC a major ratings victory. According to Nielsen Media Research early data, Mr. Williams' newscast averaged a 7.5 rating/15 share in the top 55 television markets, easily besting ABC (6.1/12) and CBS (4.2/8).
For the most part, rival news executives said holding the material would have been impossible because of its potential to leak online. "Information these days is like steam," said Jon Klein, president of CNN/U.S. "It escapes through the tiniest cracks. The notion that any piece of information ever can be sealed away, I think, is a relic of the past."
Other networks quickly grabbed NBC's footage Wednesday evening and put it on their airwaves. Newspapers ran images of the gun-toting senior on their front pages, with the network's logo in the corner of the photos. But by midday yesterday, broadcast and cable news networks had pulled back the videos, saying they feared that coverage was becoming gratuitous.
CBS News instituted a policy requiring an executive producer to sign off on any use of the footage. "The most obvious danger is that it is offensive to relatives, to friends and to millions of Americans who have been emotionally affected by this," said Vice President Paul Friedman. "There is also a complicated argument about whether this somehow inures people to violence. Common sense tells me that it's not worth taking the risk."
In Pittsburgh, KDKA-TV's management yesterday decided to show the video only when it is part of a news story, such as when police refer to it directly at a news conference, News Director John Verrilli said. "It is like the pictures of the planes going into the World Trade Center; you only want to show it when it is appropriate," he said.
The CBS affiliate received some complaints, Mr. Verrilli said, but the station made the decision after weighing general concerns about the disturbing images, law enforcement complaints and worries about copycat crimes. Showing the video Wednesday night was appropriate, he said, because it explored Mr. Cho's behavior in the two-hour gap between the two shooting incidents.
But by midmorning yesterday, Fox News officials had restricted use of the images completely on the air and online, barring further news developments.
Post-Gazette staff writer Tim McNulty contributed to this report.
First Published April 19, 2007 11:38 pm