When a young man goes berserk on a college campus and kills 32 of his fellow students and faculty in a shooting rampage, like Cho Seung-Hui did at Virginia Tech on April 16, it is news, horrible though it may be. Among the immediate questions raised after these sudden, senseless shootings were: Who was the shooter? Why did he do it? What was his frame of mind?
As we all now know, Cho, before taking his own life, sent a package—containing photos of him posing with various weapons, a letter and a videotape of himself reading that letter—to NBC News. When the network initially turned the contents over to law enforcement authorities, some praised it for responsible and cooperative behavior.
NBC News then aired portions of the videotape of Cho’s ramblings, giving the country a candid look at this clearly disturbed young man and his mind frame right before the second set of shootings. NBC also released portions of that videotape, along with some of the photos, to other media organizations, many of which also ran it on their newscasts.
Just a day later, NBC News’ decision to air the video was questioned not only by segments of the public—including victims’ families and some media-monitoring organizations, who felt the tape glorifies the killer and potentially spawns copycats—but also by some employees of the news division itself. Rival network news operations jumped on the bandwagon, saying they’d severely limit or no longer run Cho’s chilling memoir, despite the fact that they had already done so once it was available.
What some seem to be missing here is that news is not entertainment. News is not fabricated. News is reality. Sometimes news is not positive. Often, as in this case, it is about tragedy and death. At the same time, though, it is the obligation of a news organization to carry legitimate news even if it makes some people queasy.
And let’s be honest. Every other news outlet knows it wouldn’t have handled matters any differently had Cho chosen it, rather than NBC News, to send his package. The fact is, NBC News was injected into this story when it was sent the package by the killer, and it acted responsibly in handling the televising of its content. NBC News should be praised for its professionalism, not criticized.