Showing posts with label Virginia Tech. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Virginia Tech. Show all posts

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.


Monday, April 23

Confusing Crisis: Virginia Tech

Virginia Tech provides an interesting, somewhat disturbing look at American voyeurism, media sensationalism, and fear-peddling communication spin. When tragedies occur in America, people from all sides find ways to further agendas, gain ratings, and deliver questionable content.

In the wake of Cho Seung-Hui killing 33 innocent people at Virginia Tech, dozens of organizations, groups, and individuals have attempted to capitalize on the tragedy, some of them under the guise of good intentions. The net outcome is the same: polarization.

"Our legislation, had it been in place last week, may well have stopped last week's unspeakable tragedy," New York Sen. Chuck Schumer (D) said to "But we know that someone like Cho Seung-Hui should never have been allowed to buy a gun. Our legislation will take one step toward preventing more people from falling through the cracks, and will try to make sure that such a horrible thing doesn't happen in New York, or Virginia, or anywhere else ever again."

“Anybody who’s going to go on a murder spree and then kill himself is not going to be deterred by a law or regulation," said
Virginia state Del. Todd Gilbert (R), in an unrelated story that mirrors one run by The Washington Times. "He’s only going to be deterred by the end of another gun.”

Personal views aside, gun control is neither the problem nor the solution. Truth be told: no law or lack of law killed anyone at Virginia Tech. Cho Seung-Hui did. So we might all be better off giving the media a break from having to report on new debates that detract from the facts and focus on the Second Amendment.

Sure I suppose the Second Amendment has some thread of a connection between the issue and the incident. It's better, though not much better, than the Westboro Baptist Church's original threats to picket the funerals of the victims. Sure, Westboro Baptist Church removed the call to picket from its Web site after public outcry, but one wonders if they really thought "all publicity is good publicity."

To be fair, the church is not the only one trying to hitch a ride on tragedy. Even atheists have something to argue about, spurred on by Dinesh D'Souza's story. Huh?

People sometimes ask me what constitutes spin. The spin in this case comes in the form of linking unrelated topics to the tragedy. There is no relation between the shootings and economics. There is no relation between the shootings and gun control. There is no relation between the shootings and ... pick any other topic under the sun.

Yet, knee-jerk legislation, reactionary arguments, and unrelated sub-stories continue to erode common sense, keeping the pain of the tragedy alive in all of our hearts and minds for months and months, years and years. It needs to stop, but it will not any time soon. This story's next step will be a movie of the week, needless legislation, and more divisiveness between groups that were never divided before. So what is the communication lesson to be learned from all this?

Reactionary communication almost always includes erroneous thinking, especially during and after a crisis. All we can hope for is that the public becomes wary of those too quick to attach some cause, any cause, to this tragedy.


Thursday, April 19

Addressing Perception: American Idol

American Idol judge Simon Cowell demonstrated he understands something about negative publicity, even when such publicity stems from perception, speculation, and rumor. You address it.

That is precisely what Cowell did Wednesday night after social and mainstream media criticized him for an annoyed look he appeared to give contestant Chris Richardson, who is from Chesapeake, Va. The look came after Richardson followed his performance with a comment about the 32 innocent people killed at Virginia Tech.

Richardson had said: "My heart and prayers go out to Virginia Tech. I have a lot of friends over there. ... Be strong."

As the cameras cut to Cowell, he looked annoyed, rolled his eyes, and raised his eyebrows. But he wasn't rolling his eyes at the Virginia Tech comment. He was rolling his eyes at Richardson's earlier comment that nasally singing was somehow an accepted singing technique. More precisely, Cowell was still addressing the comment with Paula Abdul in a side conversation unrelated to what was happening on stage.

"I was saying to Paula, 'What does he mean, he sang nasally on purpose? I didn't understand what he was saying.' So I hadn't even heard what he did. Then my eyes rolled, given what I was saying to Paula," said Cowell.

American Idol producers went one step further by playing the video footage of Cowell's side conversation, which clearly and quickly proved the point. For some, it also demonstrated the power of perception over reality. Often, on video, what we see is dictated by camera angle and, in this case, which camera.

"I did want to clear this one up because, you know, this is a very very sensitive subject. The irony is that we did want to try and set the right tone on the show. And then something like this happens, and it just starts fanning the flames," Cowell said. "And people need to understand, there are families involved. It's not right."

Cowell went on to say that he might not be the nicest person in the world, but he sympathizes and appreciates what the contestants and affected families were going through. Well spoken, considering most celebrities and executives forget to keep their cool in order to keep the focus on corrections and clarifications. He did not apologize, because there was nothing to apologize for in a presentation that exemplified credibility and transparency.

"I would like to say, on a more serious note, just to pick up on what Ryan said, on behalf of the three of us, that we would also like to offer our best wishes and support to the families of this tragedy, as well," Cowell said, adding that it had been a tricky weekend for the contestants, some of whom were close to the families there.

In many ways, the show outperformed its critics who have taken to giving Cho Seung-Hui, the Virginia Tech gunman, a forum for his perceived grievances against rich people. Perhaps some networks might remember that while it is appropriate to report the news, the reporting of the news does not necessarily have to provide forums for killers. Sometimes there are not two sides to a story. And sometimes the best displays of empathy would be not to air a video that gives into one confused person's perception, at least not over and over again.

To make a point on communication, Cowell demonstrated how best to address misinterpretation. To address the misconception that "seeing is believing," it isn't (especially when what we see is spliced together with multiple camera angles). And to the tragedy, myself and everyone we work with echo the original words of Richardson…

"My hearts and prayers go out to Virginia Tech. I have a lot of friends over there. ... Be strong."


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