Media Coverage of the Virginia Tech Massacre


Media Coverage of the Virginia Tech Massacre


Charles Warner / <a href="">Media Curmudgeon Blog</a>

Television has once again gone on a rampage of gluttony over the tragic murders at Virginia Tech. However, it depends on your definition of what constitutes gluttony and what kind of TV you&#39;re talking about.

First, all television is not cut from the same cloth. CNN, MSNBC, and Fox are all-news cable channels, so they have a 24-hour news hole to fill. Because TV is inelastic, the three national news channels can neither expand or contract time nor add or subtract hours to the clock. Thus they fill those 24-hours with what each thinks the majority of their viewers will find compelling. And, of course, they all choose the same stories in what has become a cycle of competitive reinforcement, confirmation, and excess.

If CNN airs a story, then Fox and MSNBC producers say, "That confirms that the story is important�CNN (Fox, MSNBC) is running it." They also say, "We&#39;ve got to run the story more often and devote more resources to it or viewers will go elsewhere." Thus, the news cycle spins out of control. Furthermore, the three cable news networks have structured their programming in hour-long blocks, often with personality-hosts who do talk segments (Larry King, Lou Dobbs, Bill O&#39;Reilly), and the assumption, generally, is that viewers watch for about an hour, so they have to repeat the news cycle and the top stories every hour. In all-news radio, the news cycles are usually shorter. For example, New York&#39;s WINS has the famous tagline, "Give us 20 minutes and we&#39;ll give you the world." TV and radio all-news outlets are like a news faucet. The notion is that you can turn on a news station or channel at any time and the latest, most important news spews out.

Therefore, if you watch a TV news channel for longer than an hour, which happens with breaking news like the Virginia Tech story, you see the top story repeated, giving the impression of saturation and excess. And if you get sick of the coverage on one cable news network and turn to another, you see the same top story repeated, which increases the perception of excess coverage.

Furthermore, TV has much greater impact than any other medium because it engages viewers&#39; emotions through its blend of sight, sound, motion, and emotion. Thus videos of airplanes crashing into buildings or a killer&#39;s deadly ramblings leave much more dramatic and lasting impressions. And it is these impressions that magnify the perception of excess.

TV and radio are real-time linear; you can&#39;t rewind or fast forward. They are linear-accessed push media for which the audience can&#39;t control what is pushed out; their only option is turn off or switch outlets. Conversely, print media and the Internet are non-linear pull media in which the audience can select what they want, go back and forth, and have random access to content they are interested in. Therefore, when people have no control over what is pushed to them, they are more frustrated than when they can control their content, can pull what they want as often as they want.

With these parameters in mind, we can now ask several questions: 1) Should NBC have released the video, pictures, and ramblings of Cho Seung-Hui? 2) Overall, was the media coverage of the Virginia Tech massacre excessive and insensitive? 3) Is the media leading the charge to assign blame? 4) What is Cho&#39;s proper name?

1. Should NBC have released the video, pictures, and ramblings of Cho Seung-Hui? NBC News President Steve Capus made the right decision to release the images and ramblings, not only to show them on NBC but also to release them to other news organizations. First, it was in the public interest to have information about the psychopathic killer distributed for a number of reasons, not the least of which was to bring closure to the horror and reassure people that there was no larger plot. Also, as Jack Shafer of <a href="">Slate</a>, writes: "NBC News needn&#39;t apologize to anybody for originally airing the Cho videos and pictures. The Virginia Tech slaughter is an ugly story, but the five W&#39;s of journalism�who, what, where, when, and why�demand that journalists ask the question &#39;why?&#39; even if they can&#39;t adequately answer it. If you&#39;re interested in knowing why Cho did what he did, you want to see the videos and photos and read from the transcripts. If you&#39;re not interested, you should feel free to avert your eyes."

NBC could not have kept the pictures for itself and away from other news organizations. But did it run the images too often? Yes, and it admitted as much by restricting their use after complaints from victims&#39; families, and Virginia Tech and Virginia officials. And while we don&#39;t know if the complaints had anything to do with the decision, I think they probably did. However, the manner in which NBC promoted the video tapes on Brian William&#39;s "Nightly News" was a little too self-congratulatory, and MSNBC was clearly over the top in its greedy self-promotion. Chris Matthews, in particular, should be pistol-whipped for his callous, gloating promotion of the Cho videos. But what&#39;s so surprising about that? NBC&#39;s grade is B minus for sharing the material and eventually restricting the use of the images to no more than 10 percent of any news program. MSNBC&#39;s grade is F. CNN&#39;s grade is D, mostly for contributing to the feeding-frenzy coverage. Fox News&#39; grade is F, for using the videos, as MSNBC did, as video wallpaper. NPR&#39;s grade is A. Without pictures, radio doesn&#39;t have the impact of TV, so NPR could be more thoughtful and do more meaningful, sensitive sidebars, which it did.

2. Overall, how was the media coverage of the Virginia Tech massacre; was it excessive and insensitive? Yes and yes. The amount of coverage was excessive because of the nature of cable and radio all-news outlets, particularly in the use of the killer&#39;s video on TV. Worse, in my view, was the invasion and occupation of the Virginia Tech campus by hordes of insensitive reporters who bombarded the privacy of the university, the campus, students, victims, and their families in a frenzy to get scoops. NPR recounted the story of a female student who lived in the dorm where the first killings took place. Her dorm was locked down, but, somehow, a female magazine reporter gained access, entered her room and asked her for an interview. The weeping student asked the reporter to leave and quit badgering her, and the reporter responded by handing the distraught student her business card and asked, "Call me." The student apparently replied, "What makes you think I&#39;d call you after what you just did?"

CNN sent four anchors to the campus and broadcast from there on Thursday. Was that necessary? Absolutely not. It was excessive, intrusive, and insensitive. Freedom of speech, yes. Invasion of privacy, yes. Come on, CNN, can&#39;t you see the ironic insensitivity in overkill on an overkill?

If the major media news organizations don&#39;t find a way to control this expensive, invasive, counter-productive feeding frenzy on major stories, they leave themselves vulnerable to the Federal government stepping in and regulating news coverage, which would be terrible. However, people are sick of this insensitive type of coverage, which gives them yet another reason for hating the media. So, slapping regulatory controls on the media by the government would more than likely be a popular move. The VT shootings might result in pool coverage of major stories, or guidelines or standards under the auspices of the Radio Television News Directors Association (RTNDA), but, whatever, the big news organizations had better do something.

3. Is the media leading the charge to assign blame? Yes. According to <a href="">Media Matters for America</a>, on the April 19 edition of "MSNBC Live" Boston radio host Michael Graham told MSNBC&#39;s David Gregory that the whole story of the mass shooting "is a story of people just freezing, of just letting him have their way [sic], except that one brave professor put himself in between the gunman and his students." So Graham blames the victims and MSNBC let him get away with it. <a href=",8599,1612492,00.html">TIME magazine</a> ran a commentary by John Cloud titled "Viewpoint: Va. Tech&#39;s President Should Resign," which blames Virginia Tech president, Dr. Charles W. Steger, for the massacre, which is ridiculous. Others in the media have blamed "passive students," Virginia&#39;s mental health providers, the campus police, the state&#39;s gun control laws, Cho&#39;s family, and South Koreans. All are hysterical over-reactions, except perhaps the reaction to gun-control laws.

Perhaps the media gets in a frenzy trying to find scapegoats to blame because it is trying deflect blame from itself to avoid the usual kill-the-messenger attitude of the public.

4. What&#39;s Cho&#39;s proper name? The New York Times, NBC, and MSNBC, among others, used the name Cho Seung-Hui, according to the Korean tradition of putting a family name first (thus, I would be Curmudgeon Media). CNN, NPR, and ABC, among others, used the American version of the name, Seung-Hui Cho, which I believe is proper because Cho&#39;s parents came to America when he was very young and he is a product of American culture, having gone to grade school, high school, and college in this country (his sister graduated from Princeton). Therefore, he should not have been referred to as "South Korean," which caused a rash of hate directed unfairly at Americans of South Korean decent and at South Koreans. Furthermore, the media confused the American public by using two different versions of his name. So, even though The New York Times used the Korean version, all the other media should have gone along, standardized the usage, and explained the American usage, as NPR did, in order to avoid confusion.

And what is the overall grade for the media? A failing grade of D. When will the media get its act together? It probably won&#39;t as long as it tries to appeal to people&#39;s baser instincts in its competition for ratings and in its attempt to find the lowest level of taste and decency. I think NBC, ABC, and, at times, CBS are trying, but they are not succeeding, just barely getting a passing grade. The cable channels aren&#39;t even trying to be decent; they&#39;re just trying to beat each other.

Posted by Charles Warner at April 21, 2007 10:36 AM


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Charles Warner




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Charles Warner, “Media Coverage of the Virginia Tech Massacre,” The April 16 Archive, accessed September 20, 2017,