Sensationalizing Suffering

May 24th, 2007

News networks exploit a tragedy

By Mike Berlin

On April 16, at 9:26 a.m, students and faculty at Virginia Tech University received a campus-wide email urging them to be cautious in light of an early morning domestic shooting. At this point, two students had been killed in a dormitory by Seung-Hui Cho, an undergraduate English student. Approximately 20 minutes after the email, the unspeakable occurred as Cho slaughtered 30 other students and professors attending class before killing himself.

Following these devastating events, we find ourselves coming together in mourning and bafflement. The victims’ families have been left with a void where closure cannot be found. And college students around the country cannot help but feel victimized and tormented by the unpredictable, senseless violence that hit an unsuspecting campus.

Within the time period between Cho’s first and second shootings, he sent a media package to NBC filled with videos, pictures, and writings. Two days after the shootings, NBC, as well as many other news outlets and Web sites, frequently broadcasted pictures of a gun-toting Cho and a brief video in which he accuses an unspecified “you” of inciting his rampage. “You made me do it,” he says coldly into the camera over and over again.

There is little that is concrete in these photos and writings. And there is nothing enlightening about the video, except for what its dissemination says about the state of journalism in our country. What this phenomenon really represents is macabre media over-saturation and sensationalism. Broadcasting Cho’s video has done nothing but detract our attention from news that really matters.

Following the video’s release, a firestorm of controversy has engulfed the journalistic world over the appropriateness of showing the video. Many have stood behind NBC’s decision to air it, saying complete “censorship” would be a failure to provide the public with newsworthy material. Other supporters of the video have pointed out that it would have leaked on YouTube anyway and that it’s better for our news sources to have control over what they show. Some have also noted the lack of actual violence in the videos.

Even if we grant NBC and their supporters these points, what are the benefits of watching Cho’s video?

On April 20, NBC News President, Steve Capus, released a statement regarding the controversy surrounding the choice to air the video. Capus wrote:

“We believe it provides some answers to the critical question, ‘Why did this man carry out these awful murders?’…The limited video we’ve released clearly demonstrates this was an individual whose smoldering hatred was ready to boil over. Perhaps sharing it with the world will help to open our eyes to important warning signs.”

But there was no lack of warning signs when it came to Cho, and, at the time the video was released, the news media was already discussing them. What Capus conveniently left out from his statement is the report from Lucinda Roy. As one of Cho’s English professors, Roy had notified her dean of these exact “warning signs” after reading Cho’s violent creative writing assignments. Many of Cho’s classmates had also remembered him as extremely disturbed, especially two female students who reported him for stalking, which eventually led to Cho’s commitment to outpatient therapy. Even the police were previously consulted about Cho’s extremely menacing presence in class.

If anything, the action of mailing the package gives more insight than any of the videos, photos or writings. Cho wasn’t trying to say why he killed in his videos, he was sending out a call to action for future mass murderers. And many news sources, while justifying their actions with vague explanations, executed Cho’s plan perfectly.

The materials provided by Cho aren’t going to tell us why he killed. Instead, we’re getting his stylized and subjective portrayal, a caricature and an icon of a mass murderer. As the NBC News team tore into the media package like excited children on Christmas day, they must have squealed with glee when they realized they had received exactly what they wanted: a powerfully crafted image of a killer. While NBC and other news networks hid behind words like “discretionary” and “sensitive” to describe their coverage of the events, Cho still got his way; glorified in the media as the fictional character he presented through these materials.

It’s incredible that NBC actually believes that they’ve done a service to the public by airing the ranting and raving of a madman. One can’t help but picture the decision-makers of major broadcast corporations thinking: yes, this is ethical journalism, and it won’t hurt our ratings either.

The consequences of airing Cho’s video may also be more harmful than we would like to think. ABC News, taking a new route in this situation, actually consulted psychological experts after the controversy. The majority of the experts interviewed were worried about inspiring copycat behavior.

Mark I. Singer, professor at Case Western University, elaborates on the image produced in these repeated airings of Cho: “Adolescents are very impressionable,” said Singer. “Large front page pictures of the Virginia Tech shooter holding two guns western style, black baseball hat on backward and dressed in a khaki vest will undoubtedly become emblematic for many angry, disconnected youth.”

Dr. Gene Beresin, Director of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry Residency Training at Massachusetts General Hospital and McLean Hospital, brought up another troubling issue: “Beyond copycat phenomena, there is a risk of acute stress disorder and post-traumatic stress disorder in youth…There is good evidence that viewing events like this on television may cause PTSD in youth.”

On April 19, 2007 – one day before Capus’s public explanation – Fox News Channel Senior Vice President, John Moody, sent out a memo to his staff. In it, he wrote: “Fox News has decided to severely restrict our use of the images of Cho Seung-Hui’s communications with NBC News…We see no reason to continue assaulting the public with these disturbing and demented images.”

Many other networks, including NBC, CBS, and ABC, followed suit, cutting down Cho’s airtime significantly. The subtitle of an article by Jack Shafer on sums up the situation perfectly: “The networks cancel [Cho’s] videos after one hot ratings period.”

Perhaps the public has a right to know everything about Cho. And perhaps we’ll be suffering the effects of a copycat in shorter time than we would hope. I would definitely fear for the latter. But we could go back and forth forever, arguing about an issue that is, at most, distracting.

When looking back at the days following one of the most devastating mass murders in U.S. history, one can’t help notice how easy it is to forget the victims and their loved ones amongst all the chatter about media integrity. (I, myself, am guilty of just this.) Even if NBC’s decision to air the video meets their ethical standards, what have they accomplished aside from flexing their journalistic muscles? The public needs to know about security measures and prevention. They need to know what can be done to ameliorate this trend of violent school shootings. There is no need to glorify and sensationalize Cho’s sordid “manifesto.” My only hope is that the media can learn from this display of exploitation and revert back to the news that really matters, Cho video or not.

Mike Berlin is a junior writing major who has switched from television news to Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood. Email him at mberlin2[at]

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