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, 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