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.