As the Virginia Tech story broke last Monday, cable news, as always, took the lead with their normal oversaturated speculative coverage transferring the energy and resources normally reserved for non-story stories like the Anna Nicole Smith saga into covering a real story.
Some observers complained that the broadcast networks didn’t go with wall to wall coverage of the story. It is good that they did not last Monday afternoon, since all it does is create the chance for things to get on air that are speculative and gives talking heads a chance to talk – all of which could be seen on the cable news channels.
By the time the evening rolled around, reporters, both local, national and international had converged on Blacksburg like a pack of vultures and the networks did have some special reports. All the major local English language TV stations had their reporters on the ground there or on their way there. The exception was WPIX who used the Tribune Broadcasting national correspondents for all of their Virginia coverage. On the flip side, WABC had two reporters on scene at one point during the week.
WPIX had the right idea, since having local talent on scene really doesn’t add anything except for later promotional value touting how the station is willing to go anywhere to cover a story.
Nationally, all the major network newscasts were broadcasting live from the scene with CBS and NBC there Monday evening and all three network morning shows were broadcasting from Blacksburg. Even the BBC got into the act with Katty Kay anchoring the BBC World News from Virginia Tech on Tuesday.
However, the most controversial decision of the coverage occurred after NBC received a package from the gunman, Cho Seung-Hui, that contained a rambling manifesto of text, photos and video. NBC, of course, decided to run the images Wednesday which caused several victims’ family members to cancel their appearances on NBC News programs. By the end of the week, after much uproar, all of the other stations and networks stopped broadcasting NBC’s scoop, even praising themselves for stopping, but this is of course after they made use of it.
Interestingly, only one major North American network, the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, decided not to air Cho’s manifesto. On the CBC website, Tony Burman, Editor in Chief of CBC News, wrote the following:
At the CBC, we debated the issue throughout the evening and made the decision that we would not broadcast any video or audio of this bizarre collection. On CBC Television, Radio and CBC.ca, we would report the essence of what the killer was saying, but not do what he so clearly hoped all media would do. To decide otherwise - in our view -would be to risk copycat killings. Speaking personally, I have long admired NBC News and I am sure my admiration of their journalists will endure. But I think their handling of these tapes was a mistake.
As I watched them last night, sickened as I'm sure most viewers were, I imagined what kind of impact this broadcast would have on similarly deranged people. In horrific but real ways, this is their 15 seconds of fame. I had this awful and sad feeling that there were parents watching these excerpts on NBC who were unaware they will lose their children in some future copycat killing triggered by these broadcasts.
He told WNYC’s On the Media, “There was a lot of reflection in Canada about whether our coverage [of the Montréal college shooting last fall] went on too long, whether there turned out to be too much focus on the killer, perhaps in a way unintentionally glorifying him and his act and his motives.
And a few weeks after that, the Amish killing in Pennsylvania occurred, and I think a lot of specialists in the field started saying, hey, there's now been about six shootings in about six weeks in North America, and there's considerable evidence that there's a copycat killing kind of dimension to it.
So we as a news organization decided the next time this will happen that we'll pull back on our coverage, we'll focus more on the victims, more on the public policy issues and we'll go out of our way avoiding inadvertently glorifying the killer in ways that would trigger similarly deranged people.”
The whole idea of copycats brings us to another On the Media interview, this one from October in the aftermath of the Amish school shooting. Then, they interviewed Loren Coleman, a suicide prevention consultant and school violence researcher and author of the book The Copycat Effect: How the Media and Popular Culture Trigger the Mayhem in Tomorrow's Headlines. He was of the opinion that the media’s over coverage of tragedies, starting with the Columbine shootings have set up a model for the later perpetrators of these violent acts. In the interview Coleman noted, “I think that one of the reasons that I wrote my book, The Copycat Effect, was really to try to begin the debate within the media about how much is too much. The graphic details that we see on the cable wall-to-wall coverage and in some other media really sets up a situation where these vulnerable people have a model in front of them to then plan their outrages in a similar fashion. Since August 24th, these individuals have all been males, they've all been Caucasian, they all have been outsiders, either expelled students or older males, and they all have victimized females - young girls, usually – or authority figures, in the case of principals or teachers or guards.”
If you look at some of the Columbine shooter’s videos, which were only released a few years after the fact and only after much legal wrangling, there seems to be a lot of parallels with Cho’s video. Was the oversaturated coverage of these paste events inspiration? It is probable and it is no doubt that Cho’s desire to be heard from the grave was sent to NBC instead of being squirreled away in the case files as has happened in the past.
If anything can be learned from the way the television media covered this tragedy it is not to over cover things and to exercise some better judgment in when, how, where and what to broadcast.