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Feature

Edward Schiappa

Edward Schiappa, chair of the communication studies department, says the media should refrain from using content, especially images, that have the effect of glorifying killers.

News coverage in the hot seat

In the wake of the Virginia Tech shootings, reporting becomes an issue

By Deane Morrison

April 27, 2007

In the aftermath of the Virginia Tech tragedy, the debate has turned to media coverage of violence. The shift became inevitable the instant NBC-TV flashed the first images of shooter Seung-Hui Cho's snarling visage and started the wheels of outrage rolling, as they do whenever a killer is given media exposure beyond the facts of his or her crime. Opinions have run the gamut from branding NBC's use of the Cho video irresponsible to vigorous defense of independent news. Two University professors, Jane Kirtley and Edward Schiappa, have weighed in on the controversy over showing the video. Though holding different viewpoints, neither calls for government intervention and both see room for the media to improve their handling of tragic news. Is it news? In any news organization, a news director's first question should always be about the newsworthiness of material. "I think the shooter's video is news," says Kirtley, professor and director of the Silha Center for the Study of Media Ethics and Law. "People had an intense interest in knowing about this individual, and the tape was his vision of himself." That, however, doesn't mean NBC is off the hook. Schiappa, chair of the communication studies department, takes issue with the sheer quantity of airtime given the video and teasers like "Tune in tonight" for more. On that score, he and Kirtley agree. But Schiappa also takes the media to task for showing a particular type of content. "Most disturbing was NBC's release of self-aggrandizing 'glamour' photos that the killer made of himself," he says. "Such visual images do not provide us 'insight' into the killer. They glorify him as a larger-than-life figure to be imitated by similarly depressed and unstable individuals." The perceived glorification of the killer was a major reason families of victims walked out of a planned appearance on NBC's "Today" show. That act raised the question of whether the media should hold back on coverage that would be distressing to families.

Jane Kirtley
Jane Kirtley, director of the Silha Center for the Study of Media Ethics and Law, says the homemade video of Seung-Hui Cho is news.

"The media should always treat victims and families with respect, but victims' families shouldn't have veto power over whether something like this is aired," Kirtley says. "Where do we stop in accommodating people who object to this? I say turn off the TV or hit the mute button." Still, she says, "I think we're seeing a seismic shift in the way the news media cover tragedies. There was a lot [more coverage] done on victims as information became available." The copycat trigger At the hot core of the debate lies the question of whether giving a killer 15 minutes of fame--for any reason--leads to more tragedies at the hands of copycat killers. No one who isn't volatile to start with is likely to commit such a crime, so the issue comes down to whether coverage of the carnage like the 1999 killings at Columbine High School or Virginia Tech can push a borderline person over the edge. Schiappa says yes. "The evidence is abundantly clear that media coverage of school shootings such as the Virginia Tech massacre can inadvertently encourage 'copycat' behavior," he says. "A number of empirical studies have proven that media coverage serves as a 'priming effect' for aggressive individuals and increases the probability of subsequent violent behavior."

"The evidence is abundantly clear that media coverage of school shootings such as the Virginia Tech massacre can inadvertently encourage 'copycat' behavior"--Edward Schiappa

"The idea that any one thing like a videotape showing will trigger this behavior is very suspect"--Jane Kirtley

"The idea that any one thing like a videotape showing will trigger this behavior is very suspect," counters Kirtley. "What prompted [Cho] to do this wasn't the Columbine massacre--he was a sick individual. If the media stop reporting on anything that might lead to violent behavior, we couldn't report suicide bombings." From there, she believes, it's a short slippery slope to self-censorship. But Schiappa sees room to identify and desist from harmful coverage. "Let me be clear that we cannot avoid any and all stories that might lead to copycat behavior," he says. But, he adds, self-glorifying material like some of the images on Cho's video have the least legitimate news value but the most potential to romanticize a killer in the minds of depressed, suicidal, and angry viewers. The fact that potential copycat killers are suicidal depressive doesn't absolve the media from its role in facilitating the phenomenon, he concludes. In Kirtley's view, the media are damned if they do and damned if they don't. There's little doubt that if a news organization had a video like Cho's but refused to show it, that decision would be greeted by a chorus of protest. "Telling tough stories is part of what the media are about," says Kirtley. "You have to make a judgment about the public interest. Concern about people who might copy can't be the driving factor." Bracing for the future In covering tragedies like the Virginia Tech massacre, Schiappa says the media should refrain from showing self-promotional or glamorizing videos and emphasize that such events are not isolated; rather, they are part of a larger mental health problem and they can happen anywhere. Media, he says, should put more emphasis on the accounts of survivors and victims and provide contact information about hotlines, helplines, and other resources for the depressed and suicidal. Also, journalism training should "include knowledge about the copycat effect and the types of coverage most likely to encourage further violence." One thing that bothers Kirtley is the way the current controversy centers on the role of the traditional media, such as television and newspapers. Once a shooting has been reported, it takes on a life of its own on the Internet and any number of private communication circles, all of which are potential sources of influence. And Schiappa points out that there is "a whole Columbine culture out there," where the shooters have become cult figures. Entertainment media also feature a regular diet of violence; for example, there are reports that the movie "The Deer Hunter," which featured gruesome scenes of Russian roulette, inspired suicides. But shootings like those at Columbine and Virginia Tech aren't entertainment. They are real life, and real life is a laboratory where one can't control the experiment. We can't turn back the clock, erase Columbine, and then see what Seung-Hui Cho would have done. It's impossible to sort out what, if anything, about previous killings-images, cold hard facts like the number of victims, or other factors-might have made a crucial difference. Mass shootings have been around for a long time, and they won't go away. While the media can exercise restraint in the placement and duration of coverage so as not to glorify killers, the underlying problem is behaviors like bullying and conditions like depression and other forms of mental illness that help push vulnerable people over the edge. Mass shootings are very rare, but these breeding-ground conditions are much less so. Interventions have already short-circuited several apparent shootings-in-the-making; reducing the prevalence of contributing factors offers the best hope of preventing more suffering.