Virginia Tech shootings create media ethics debate


Virginia Tech shootings create media ethics debate


Jeff Vrabel / GateHouse Media
Thu Apr 19, 2007, 05:01 PM CDT

BLACKSBURG, VA - Regular readers of this column - and hello to all three of you - know that, when appropriate, partially appropriate, tangentially connected or carries the very slight possibility of being funny to someone somewhere, I have no problem resorting to remarks of questionable taste. Sometimes, if I can and my editors agree, I can slip a colorful adjective in there or two. When it comes to matters of obscenity and the maintenance of high culture, a conservative prude I am not.

But something about being unable to avoid pictures of Cho Seung-Hui pointing a gun at me Thursday was more nauseatingly loathsome than I might have even expected.

People with lengthier titles and livelier paychecks than mine will by now have spent hours and days debating the judiciousness of using the pictures of a killer doing what he did when he executed more than 30 people on Monday, pointing the gun at me, at you, at himself, at whatever purported demons he'd invented. He did so on purpose, doing it with the intent to enrage after his death. With astonishing clarity, Cho's package to NBC News proved, over all else, that this was not a random bout of insanity, a snap. This was as premeditated a rampage as one could enact; one wouldn't be surprised if investigators soon discover a map and a set of blueprints.

I'm not here to debate the news value, and were I sitting in the newsroom at NBC News when that package came in, I - nor any of you - have any idea how I would have reacted. But it feels an awful, awful lot like serving a black-hearted killer a drink at the bar and asking if he'd like to keep the bottle for free.

This is what he wanted. This is what he's getting. There wasn't much chance that anything else would happen, really.

Hopefully, at least some percentage of the country's 6 million pundits-posing-as-journalists will at least begin addressing the question of how much of the decision to run these photos was fueled by news judgment and how much was fueled by the media's increasingly desperate desire to keep up. By Tuesday, CNN had a bumper - not a segment, not a commercial, but one of those four-second clips that leads viewers into and out of ads - that flashed the phrase "CAMPUS SHOOTING" no fewer than eight times. Eight times! The font changed, got bigger, jumped around the screen, and finally settled front and center in bold type, where even if you were just flipping by or passing it at the airport, you could stop and wonder what's next. (Hilariously, the CNN outlet I was watching at the time punctuated its Cho coverage with a 90-second ad for a gun range.)

At this point, calls for judiciousness will fall on deaf ears; as the moment for pure sympathy and horror seems to have already passed - well, it is Friday - now we can get on with the ransacking of grief, the creation of logos and theme music and the mortifying - and, for the most part, unavoidable - capitulation to the wishes of a killer.

<i>Jeff Vrabel can be reached at</i>


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Jeff Vrabel, “Virginia Tech shootings create media ethics debate,” The April 16 Archive, accessed November 29, 2021,