Friday, April 27

Addressing Ethics: Virginia Tech

One of the prevailing themes that continues to be discussed in the media, recently on PBS News Hour Extra, is NBC's decision to air the the Virginia Tech killer's so-called manifesto.

NBC didn't have to, as I pointed out last Thursday and again on Monday. However, that is not to say I don't appreciate the decisions that networks face.

When I teach public relations practitioners about media ethics from the perspective of reporters and new editors, I borrow a technique from my media law professor years ago. He asked everyone who believed you "should never publish the name of a 14-year-old rape victim" to raise their hands. About 95 percent of the class raised their hands.

But then, he asked anyone who would change their minds if the victim was related to an elected official to put their hands down. About one third of the raised hands went down.

What if an elected official was the perpetrator? Only about five percent of the hands raised.

What if every other paper is already running her name? Not a single hand remained.

"Oh, so much for never publishing the name of a 14-year-old rape victim," he said. "And that's the point. Most ethical dilemmas are not black or white. It depends."

In the case of Virginia Tech, as noted in the PBS News Hour Extra, the decision to air the gunman's video was one of the toughest. CBS "Early Show" anchor Harry Smith told the Associated Press, "I felt manipulated by the fact [Cho] was getting exactly what he wanted. We could have used the tape more discreetly." And Canadian Broadcasting Corporation news chief Tony Burman called the airing of the video by American broadcasters a "mistake," warning it could lead to copycat killings.

Some of the attention on the crisis and related sub-controversies are somehow partly responsible for what the FBI says have been 35-40 mostly school-based copycat threats since the Virginia Tech tragedy. (We had one somewhat related incident in Las Vegas and even more in nearby California so the figure might be more than the FBI reported.)

From my perspective, I think it was a mistake because the media could have reported on the video without airing it. Still, I find it promising that NBC and other major networks such as ABC, CBS and Fox have since decided to stop or limit broadcast of the video and images. I think that is a positive step toward responsible reporting without regard for ratings.

Not everyone agrees. Some feel the footage is a necessary part of the entire truth and others said it demonstrated how the gunman had really planned everything out. It's an interesting position that might make one wonder about about the public's appetite for voyeurism. As one station executive once told me, we air murders, car accidents, and robberies in that order because when we don't, no one watches.

Ethical dilemmas. They are not always black and white. For my own part, this post will likely be my last on the subject. For those impacted by the tragedy, including some associates, my sympathies and prayers are with you.



MK on 4/29/07, 4:21 PM said...

Here's one about Tony Burman from the CBC not wanting to call people who blow up commuter trains, "terrorists".

How would you call that one?

Regards, The Recruiting Animal

Rich on 4/30/07, 10:04 AM said...


It is always a pleasure when you drop by.

If it's a terrorist attack, then calling someone a terrorist is not taking sides by it's very definition. I think most people would agree that a terrorist someone who intends to further a, usually organized, ideological goal through fear and terror by deliberately targeting citizens.

I can only hope that the avoidance of the term is meant to avoid calling people like the Virginia Tech gunman a terrorist when he was someone who was emotionally and mentally disturbed. Calling him a terrorist, for example, could potentially and unduly cause fear that aids terrorist organizations.

The net sum is that the London bombers were clearly terrorists in my opinion. No one has to "take sides" to call them that either.

All my best,


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