PHILADELPHIA—In an unusual midcourse correction, TV networks have scaled back, or stopped altogether, running the disturbing video made by Virginia Tech killer Cho Seung-Hui.
Bowing to a storm of public censure and the outrage from victims’ families, NBC said Thursday that it would severely limit its use of the video on all NBC News broadcasts as well as on MSNBC.
The other networks quickly followed suit.
CBS said it would use “extreme caution” in airing any materials. CNN said it would run portions “very judiciously.” Both networks said producers would need approval from their superiors before anything could be shown.
Fox News Channel said it would stop telecasting the videos altogether, as did ABC. “If we do use a clip, we’ll only run a few seconds, without audio,” ABC News’ Jeffrey Schneider said.
Cho shot to death 32 people, and then himself, on the Virginia Tech campus Monday. On Wednesday, NBC News received a package from him containing his vitriolic video, digital images of him posing with pistols, knives and a hammer, and rambling written messages.
Newspapers and Web sites handled the images in a variety of ways.
The Philadelphia Inquirer carried a picture of Cho at the bottom of the front page, with a caption providing information for linking to the videotape and other photos.
The Philadelphia Daily News devoted its front page to a picture of Cho aiming a gun point-blank at the lens.
Philly.com, the Web site of the two papers, ran a mug shot of Cho, with a link to the video.
The New York Times ran a picture at the top of its front page showing Cho holding two guns, the same image published in many other papers across the country. A few newspapers, including the Chicago Tribune and USA Today, elected to go with head shots of Cho that cropped out the weapons.
Presented with a grotesque exclusive, NBC ran excerpts on Wednesday’s “NBC Nightly News. Its rivals immediately followed suit. On last night’s broadcast, NBC anchor Brian Williams spoke of “a painful decision to air what was, by any standards, news.”
The disturbing footage of the killer rationalizing his massacre set off a passionate debate about media ethics.
NBC News president Steve Capus, who was in the spotlight last week for canceling MSNBC’s simulcasts of Don Imus’ radio show, defended his decision on the Cho tapes in rounds of interviews Wednesday night. He referred to the choice to run the video as “an obligation.”
Did NBC make the right call? Opinions differ.
“I fail to see any public value in it,” said Matthew Felling of Washington’s Center for Media and Public Affairs. “It’s giving the assailant what he wanted: attention and a platform.
“If NBC had the video exclusively, it could have at least had the good taste to wait until after the funerals were over.”
The families of two victims cancelled their scheduled appearance Thursday, via satellite from Blacksburg, Va., on NBC’s “Today.” Coanchors Matt Lauer and Meredith Vieira discussed it on the air.
Andrew Heyward, president of CBS News from 1996 to 2005, faced a similar dilemma soon after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.
Many victims’ families urged him not to broadcast a documentary done by two French filmmakers who were on the scene when the World Trade Center was hit. The film ran six months after Sept. 11, to the day.
“News is not a popularity contest,” Heyward said Thursday. “You have to be responsible to the families, but your main responsibility is to inform the public.
“Otherwise, you wouldn’t even be able to cover the war.”
Heyward labeled those situations “a difficult balancing act” between running material that is newsworthy and honoring a constituency that claims an overwhelming reason “not to run it.
NBC handled it responsibly, he said, by showing segments that “shed light on his (Cho) state of mind,” but not in an exploitative, sensationalistic manner.
Bob Steele, who teaches ethics at the Poynter Institute for Media Studies, agreed.
While “shattering” to victims’ families, the video “gave the public more pieces of a complex puzzle,” Steele said. “It provided one more lens into who the killer was and what motivated him to carry out that slaughter.”
In his NBC blog Thursday, Williams wrote: “It’s good to know that the worst of them (Cho videos)—all now in the hands of investigators—will never see the light of day.”
Most people seemed to agree that the images that have already emerged have made the world a darker place.