by Stone Phillips, Dateline anchor
When Seung-Hui Cho mailed his "multi-media manifesto" to NBC News, he clearly was hoping that at least some of what he sent would find its way onto the airwaves. It did. And we entered a new era of crime coverage and a minefield of potential media manipulation.
Clearly, Cho knew his rampage would be worthy of national news coverage. Why else would he send his diatribe to NBC headquarters in New York? By including photographs of himself with his last words and testament he also believed he could control the images emblazoned forever in the public's mind.
There is no question in my mind that NBC News made the right decision to inform the public about the package it received-- when it was sent and the content it contained. I also believe that when it comes to broadcasting the actual material less is more. Cho's words and demeanor provide some insight into his troubled mind, notably his glowing references to the Columbine killers. But his ranting warrants only the most limited airtime, lest we reward him with a platform to spew his hate and a higher place in the pantheon of mass murderers. This was not an interview or cross-examination. There was no opportunity to probe or challenge Cho in a way that might have yielded greater insights to aid the healing process or prevent future acts of madness. This was Cho's parting shot to the world he loathed, a dictated legacy left for us to disseminate. In such a case, airing more than the the briefest of soundbites, placed in careful context, would only grant the killer's wish.
As disturbing as they are, I also see some news value in the photographs of Cho brandishing weapons, pointing a gun straight into the camera and striking movie poster poses. They speak to his self-image and grandiose delusions. They also reveal more about the level of premeditation and planning that went into the attack. But, again, there is a downside to broadcasting Cho's personal photo gallery favorites. Surfacing just days after the massacre, the photographs were clearly going to stir strong emotions. Sensitivity to the victims' families and friends is a major concern. Playing into the killer's hands is another. As former FBI profiler Clint Van Zandt has suggested, putting these images on the air may well have handed Cho the victory he wanted most. Cho, the marauder. Cho, the martyr. Cho, the avenger, unafraid to die. Of course, he was none of those. But that's how he saw himself. That's how he wanted to be seen and remembered. He chose the poses. We aired them, and proliferation was inevitable. Based on the widespread pick-up the pictures received in media outlets all over the world, the editorial issue was not so much whether to publish, but how much and for how long. There is no formula for that. Ultimately, it comes down to the editing process in each newsroom, something organizations like NBC News undertake with careful deliberation.
These decisions are not easy; self-censorship carries its own set of dangers. Perhaps, if some purpose is served by all of this, it lies in the questions we ask ourselves.
Cho is dead and gone. Tragically, so are the 32 Virginia Tech students and teachers he killed. What we are left to ponder is the balance we strike between the need to inform and the signal we send to other deranged individuals. Horrific acts of violence must be covered. A sound editorial process, with the sensitivity and restraint that is always the hallmark of solid news judgment, is critical. Anything less puts us on a perilous path, indeed, where culprits can count on the media to make their venomous voices heard and give them the power to play photo editor from the grave.