Is media playing the role of killer’s pawn?

In the wake of the Virginia Tech massacre, I’ve found myself wondering: What responsibilities should the media be taking in regard to its coverage of this particular kind of tragedy? I ask this as an outside observer as well as someone who works in the media, where we have posted on our own web site some of the very materials I will discuss here.

Obviously, the media must report the news. The public wants to know what happened, how, and why. I have no problems with the kind of coverage we got on the day of the shootings. (Granted, I only saw about an hour or so of television reports, but what I saw seemed to be generally solid. Wolf Blitzer and that absurd “Situation Room” need to go, but that’s a matter of personal taste for another blog.)

But there’s a fine line, I think, when it comes to the media becoming a platform for the nonsensical ravings of a disturbed individual. When NBC received the package from the gunman Wednesday, they copied the materials and then turned it over to the FBI. Essentially, a big, fat exclusive report had landed in their laps simply because the gunman had sent it to them instead of another media outlet.

I saw the report last night on NBC’s Nightly News, and it only confirmed most of what everyone had already known about the gunman: He was deeply disturbed, he was “justified” in his sick mind, and he had planned the massacre well in advance of carrying it out. None of this “new” information makes his actions any more understandable to the average person or provides any insight for the families of the victims. How could it?

What airing portions of the gunman’s diatribe does accomplish, however, is give him more power after the fact. Essentially, NBC has put his multimedia “manifesto” into the public eye for all to see. Most people who contribute constructively to society get less exposure in their lifetimes than the bandwidth this guy’s “ideas” ended up getting in 10 minutes of news coverage. What does this say to future potential gunmen? It implies that infamy will get you exposure and the media will put your words on the air if you record them before doing something so tragically awful.

I don’t believe the news media “creates” people like him, but the media probably helps give him more perceived credibility in the eyes of others like him. The fact that the Virginia Tech gunman directly referenced the Columbine killers is evidence of that.

I also don’t blame NBC for airing the video. The simple fact is that a lot of people surely wanted to see it, and if NBC didn’t air it, someone else inevitably would’ve. NBC, as a news outlet in a competitive market, had to air it on the basis of ratings alone. But apparently, even among the NBC staff, that decision still was not unanimous.

The whole matter demonstrates the disturbing truth that when it comes to massacre-style crimes like this, the media easily becomes the assailant’s unwilling pawn and mouthpiece. No news outlet is going to pass up the story, and the public will consume the materials created by the killers in the (fruitless) hope to gain some kind of insight or rational explanation where, really, there can be none.

Meanwhile, for the families of the victims, it serves as further insult to injury.

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4 comments on this post

Hotshot309
Thursday, April 19, 2007, 11:39 pm (UTC -6)

I haven’t seen more than a sentence or two of what this guy had to say between shootings, but that’s fine by me. I was disgusted when my local NBC station said, “The gunman from the Virginia Tech gives a video ONLY TO NBC…” in an ad for the later news of the evening. Oooh, exclusive? NBC is the best station, and that’s why this nutjob sent them the video? Lemme watch, lemme watch!

Come on, people. Stop analyzing, and stop making it about race (which some people are, but I don’t see why–a disturbed individual who needs help is just that regardless of race or nation of origin). Most of all, don’t perpetuate this guy’s fame and repeat over and over why he wanted to do it. Sure, we have a right to hear the words, but the least desirable thing right now would be to send the wrong message to some pre-pubescent, depressed suburban kids who might be looking for some way to “make a statement” and get their fifteen minutes of fame in a few years down the road. After all, they will be famous (even if only posthumously).

Mike Verzechuan
Friday, April 20, 2007, 2:17 am (UTC -6)

I think NBCs decision to publish his “manifesto” was reasonable. I’m a bit disgusted by the way they went about doing it. As the previous response eludes to – what should have been a somber decision on the part of journalists to make the information public instead reaked of an attempt to generate as much attention and viewership (read: money) for NBC news as possible.

Eric G.
Friday, April 20, 2007, 8:54 am (UTC -6)

I agree – the additional coverage of the shooter’s video and photographs are gratuitous at best. I don’t think that airing his video or displaying his picture served any purpose beyond what we already knew about the shooter and incident. Perhaps this additional information could have been used down the road by folks seeking to better understand an incident like this, but as you mentioned, it insults the families of the victims, and it likely empowers those with similar disturbed tendencies.

Personally, I can’t think of a reason to watch the video other than to satisfy my own morbid curiousity.

Stef
Friday, May 25, 2007, 3:05 am (UTC -6)

We can blame the media all we want for publishing the ‘manifesto’, but no one was forced to watch it. I haven’t seen it, and I haven’t seen the infamous Saddam hanging either. They just don’t interest me.

People will happliy blast the media, and yet sit there in front of the TV watching it, shaking their heads “This is wrong, they shouldn’t be showing it.”

Not being from the US, I don’t know how NBC publicised it, but from the comments it does indeed sound like they played it for every possible ratings pull they could get. But again, no one forced people to watch it. The only way to get ratings is for people to watch.

I’m sure if I really wanted to, I could download the Saddam vid, and this NBC ‘story’, but that would mean pausing all my pr0n downloads, and that just ain’t gonna happen. 😉

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