Jack Myers' Think Tank: Journalistic Ethics Debated In Aftermath Of Virginia Tech Killings

This is an especially difficult column to write this week. All my instincts cry out to avoid participating in the emerging debate over the publication, distribution and redistribution ad nauseum of the photos, video and manifesto of sick, deranged Virginia Tech killer Cho Seung-Hui. Once again, the media is in the spotlight this week, as bloggers and discussion boards, as well as professional commentators and critics, debate the actions of NBC and others.

"CBS Early News" and "The Early Show" used the tragedy as an opportunity for self-promotion. So here's a question to my readers:

Was the CBS ad focusing on three students holding each other in fear for their lives appropriate promotion, a relevant communication with audiences, reprehensible self-promotion, or all of the above?

Tom Cuniff says in his commentary in the "Oldtimers" Discussion Board (reprinted here with permission) "I'm disgusted. Anybody else?" Tom is disgusted because "the news media has become THE key accomplice in these acts. A person would have to be insane not to know that. Oops, I take that back. Insane people DO know that. And so now we have psychopaths crafting their own digital Media Kits. I arrived home from work tonight to see Cho Seung-Hui's carefully constructed PR materials that he sent to NBC. He mailed them after the first murders (timing is everything), and then trundled off to go increase the body count. He provided digital video, edited for teasers and for longer pieces. He provided digital photos -- very thoughtfully on a blank background, ready for any supers or logos that NBC might want to add. He even provided a few audio sound bites, presumably so the anchor people could easily play the voice over photos of some attractive victim while sympathetically asking the girl's mother 'how do you feel when you hear the killer's voice?'

"While Cho Seung-Hui was seriously and sadly mentally imbalanced, he wasn't stupid enough to send his press kit to some network that's trailing in the ratings. He went straight for the top show and NBC will glory in this bloodbath for as many days as they can. You can bet Katie Couric is kicking herself hard with her Manolo Blahniks right now because Cho Seung-Hui chose 'The Today Show' over her."

Most observers I've spoken with believe NBC has a responsibility to share Cho Seung-Hui's messages and content. Others seriously question the ethics.

Also at the "Oldtimers" board, Tom Hespos writes (reprinted with permission): "One of the most intellectually challenging classes I took in college was Journalism Ethics, where we would debate the relatively better moral paths in situations like this. No doubt, today's journalism students at my alma mater are sitting in class right now talking about this decision by NBC. IMHO, part of the reason Cho Seung-Hui committed these disgusting acts was to get his point of view across, twisted as it may be. NBC is setting a dangerous precedent by sending the message that people can use acts of mass terror to advance their points of view, manifestos and what have you. The notion of achieving fame and getting one's TV time by using acts of terror as an amplifier could be something that puts a borderline nutjob over the edge. Continue to reward killers like this, and there could be more killing.

"My point is that the mass media should be very careful with the types of behavior they reward with prime-time coverage. Killers don't deserve rewards. Add to this the notion of emotional distress inflicted on the families and friends of the victims, the appearance of leveraging a huge tragedy for ratings gains, and the potential for tainting a piece of evidence, and I think NBC had a fairly clear-cut decision. They blew it, IMHO."

Did NBC "blow it"? Do you agree that NBC should have turned the materials over to authorities without coverage? Is there any doubt that all the videos, photos and manifesto would be posted within days at YouTube and other sites? In today's world of instant news gratification, are broadcast networks being held to a standard that is above and beyond the standards applied to other news distribution channels?

What do you think? Share your comments below.