It is not journalism’s job to be safe

It is not journalism’s job to be safe or to make the world safe for our consumption. It is journalism’s job to tell us uncomfortable truths.

So I’ve come to think that NBC made the wrong decision about the Virgina Tech shooter’s tapes: They should have released the worst of them. For that would force us as a society to grapple with the issues we’re still sidestepping: How can our laws and systems keep a clearly insane and dangerous man out of treatment and in the public? How can we justify laws that value his privacy — the most overexploited buzzword of the age, I say — over his safety and sanity and the safety of those around him? How can we have laws that prevent the school from telling his parents about his problems and telling the rest of us what happened in his case, even now? If NBC showed how utterly deranged this murderer was, then I hope we would have an outcry to change the One-Flew-Over-the-Cuckoo’s-Nest laws that purport to protect but only harm the insane and those around them. But NBC won’t do that because there reportedly is an outcry (though one should always be skeptical about what media labels an outcry) against their decision to release what they did.

Yet I’ll argue that by choosing to release only the safest elements of this sick collction, NBC made the killer look less dangerous, perhaps even sympathetic or cartoonish. Compare the image with the latest cover of Wired (and, no, of course, the parallel is not that they’re Asian; it’s the fictional nature of both I’m pointing to, each a character in a media narrative).


If, instead, NBC had shown the most vile of Cho’s rants, we would see just how dangerous he obviously was. We would ask the hard questions about why he was allowed to do what he did. And if you’re worried about copycats, I also think that the bilious Cho would be less likely to inspire aspiration than the cartoonish Cho we now see. To those who argue that NBC is only giving Cho his wish — fame — I say they are doing worse: They are cleaning up his image.

Now I’m not saying that NBC should show these images all the time, looping the horror, forcing it upon us. Thanks to the web, they don’t need to show them on the air at all: They could give us the option of seeing them online. Does that appeal to our worst nature? No, it shows our worst nature and the argument can be made that we must face that. By not facing that, we are raising, not lowering, the danger of copycats, of the next nut who’ll be allowed to slip through our laws and systems because we wouldn’t want to offend anyone.

It is not NBC’s job to be safe. But it is NBC’s job to be popular and in this case, that’s unfortunate. I normally reject the arguments of those who want news to be a not-for-profit enterprise. I say that the news must face its marketplace. But this is one instance in which the quest for ratings, popularity, and profit can affect journalistic judgment. Still, NBC did release some of the images and tapes. If they had wanted to be utterly safe, to offend absolutely no one, they might well not have put anything out, or they could have punted that decision to government. Some say they did this for ratings, but I have to believe they knew this would not be a popular decision in many quarters. So they did release some of the tapes. I say they released the wrong ones. If there were ever a story that required uncomfortable truths, this is one.

: See also Dave Winer on this in various posts. And see Michael Markman’s take (but also please see his apology for a tasteless allusion to my views in the comments on that post).

  • John Mahoney

    “It is not journalism’s job to be safe or to make the world safe for our consumption. It is journalism’s job to tell us uncomfortable truths.

    Dead on, Jeff.

    There is no higher calling than to be a Fair Witness.

    John Mahoney, Editor
    Log Cabin Chronicles

  • This is a tricky issue. Certainly I can appreciate the thoughtfulness of the arguments presented. At the same time, it pretty obvious from the material reported to be shown by NBC, or even if a package had never been mailed to NBC, of the disturbed nature (culminated in the ghastly actions) of this individual committing the VT massacre.

    I am very much leery in regard to the availability, pretty much regardless of context, of gruesome images. What do they add versus what do they subtract? They subtract a sensitized state of our sensibilities leading to desensitization. Isn’t this the whole (or a part of) the argument against violence (or gratuitous violence) in the media to begin with.

    Even without the NBC package, any of it, there was a host of information about the horrific event. Despite being a loner, there was also significant detail about the killer’s background, etc. I read several articles altogether on various aspects of what occurred and events prior. That was enough for me. I didn’t feel a need to see gruesome details, or read excessively beyond a basic news picture and background. I frankly do not really see what that adds.

    Thank you.

  • Connie

    What is truth anyway?

    Hate to rain on the blogger parade, but, while any kind of journalism might attempt to tell the truth, it is biased. Bias is in everything we read, including the history books. Read critically, and while doing so, try to understand the reporter’s point of view. The truth might be found nearby.

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  • Chris Newman

    In my opinion, I would think it would be in the best interest of NBC to show the entire videos because they would get more ratings. I worry about mimicry, bit I think if someone is insane enough to think this idea, seeing these images aren’t going to push them to do it. I do think that these images and videos have vilified Cho, and so the rest of them need to be made public. Putting the videos online gives the viewer a chance to watch them and they can be warned about the violent and disturbing nature of them. Some of the unpleasant news about the Iraqi war have been made public, so how come his videos can’t be made public?

  • I’ve been grappling with the issue that NBC says there is a journalistic duty to show the video but that there are parts that are so horrific that they “will never see the light of day?” Which is it? Also do you think any of the nets thought about releasing it only online?

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  • Paw

    Bravo, Jeff! But why stop there? There’s plenty of gruesome images that aren’t shown within news telecasts that could be extremely instructive and “force us to grapple with issues we’re still sidestepping”. Al Qeda beheadings, rape victims, aborted fetuses, gunshot wounds, the swollen bodies of starving children, American soldiers’ dead bodies – why bother with a body bag when we have so much to learn? After all, we apparently can’t just discuss these sorts of things without pictures and sound – it’s the new way.

    Do you honestly believe that an unexpurgated version of the ravings of a truly troubled young man would result in anything other than satisfying the prurient interests of the kind of people that slow down while driving by a car wreck just to see if anyone was killed or maimed? When was the last time an evening newscast resulted in deep thought of any kind?

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  • I’ve tried, but I see zero reason to put the mass murderer’s picture next to one of the actor from Heroes and say essentially, “hey, wow, look how similar.” What exactly was the point?

    You do note that the photos aren’t posted simply because both are Asian men, but I can’t imagine you’d have have posted the Wired cover at all if it were Anakin Skywalker holding a lightsabre or something.

    Sorry, this one went totally over my head, and I’m perhaps a bit offended.

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  • Hm. An interesting argument, but as Paw has pointed out rather graphically, not an entirely realistic one, Jeff.

    To begin with, there are reasons why MEIN KAMPF was never made into a movie or even a television documentary. Similarly, there are reasons why we try not to show prisoners of war on the six o’clock news. And so far, I haven’t heard of anyone optioning Ted Kaczinski’s manifesto for a screenplay (although nowadays, nothing would suprise me.)

    I ordinarily don’t do quotes, however:

    “Responsible Journalism seeks to accurately reflect important and interesting information in a timely fashion doing no harm unless the social good achieved out balances the harm.”
    —Jack Fuller, President, Tribune Publishing

    Now, nobody is saying that Mr. Fuller has cornered the market on what, exactly, consitutes ‘doing no harm’…however, by the same token, nobody is saying that YOU, either, Jeff, have the inside track on that call. This is an interesting can of worms you’ve opened, and I seriously doubt that anyone less qualified than a panel of psychologists, sociologists and criminal science authorities could thrash out the details of such a concept in less than a few years’ debate…let alone whether or not the good done by full coverage of the Cho videos would outweigh the potential harm…only TIME will tell on that call.

    Welcome to the tightrope-walk of moral objectivity. Please note the lack of the safety net of public support. Please extinguish all smoking materials, secure your blindfold, and place one foot precisely in front of the other…

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  • Copycats of such murders do not idolize the murderer, but the ghastly act itself. The fact that Cho followed through with his homicidal ideation and succeeded in his intentions, will light the fuse of future murderers. For these madmen, Cho is merely the new benchmark, the man to beat. Even if NBC had shown him at his most unhinged, copycats would still recognize the fact that Cho was able to fully realize his horrific dreams, to ‘enact his revenge’. It doesn’t make a difference whether NBC shows any of Cho’s videos, the vicious or the tame. Those-who-would-be-Cho do not admire Cho as an individual, they admire what he did. And, what Cho did joins the chain of similar massacres, an horrible and unending chain of lonely, tortured souls whose insanity manifests itself in horrific violence. We’re not going to stop terrorism by taking off our shoes at the airport, nor are we going to stop future shootings by showing a different video clip on TV. It’s going to happen no matter what we do.

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  • Carson Bennett

    I think the discussion of what to publish and not publish is a bit more nuanced than the Hewitt – Jarvis split indicates. The media do more than just “tell truths” — they are a social amplification mechanism. Since they are for profit, they need to ‘tell truths’ in a way that earns money, which means they need to infuse it with drama. Education ‘tells truths,’ but the media play a different role.

    NBC’s social amplification in this event told very clearly one important truth: if you are young a crave the power to get your message across to a large audience and you want access to national media, don’t win a national spelling bee or earn a scholarship or help the needy — the mainstream media amplify aberrant behavior.

    I don’t believe the media/journalists should ignore aberrant events, nor do I think it is their job to “protect society.” But the discussion is more nuanced than Hewitt’s “don’t publish” or Jeff’s “they tell uncomfortable truths.”

  • JohnnyL

    Hate to say it but all of you have missed the real point. Its not what to air or even if the material should be aired at all but how it is aired… the context and how Cho is presented. When the videos are described on air by Brian Williams as “what can only be described as a multimedia manifesto” then that tells you that NBC was looking to glorify the killer for all those of like mind out there who would like nothing more than to have their deranged little MySpace rants and doodles described as a “manifesto”.

  • I know you say the comparison is not because they’re both Asian, but can you really deny that that’s the attention grabber to begin with? I think it would of been a great reality check and quite interesting had NBC released the worst of the Cho tapes, but I think it worked out for the best concerning the sensitivity of the friends and families of those who died. Many belief the tapes that were released were in horrific taste and completely appalling.

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