Second-Guessing On Use Of Cho Pictures

Blacksburg, Va., customers watch the NBC Nightly News as they dine in a local restaurant on Wednesday, April 18, 2007. Between his first and second bursts of gunfire, Virginia Tech gunman Cho Seung-Hui mailed a package to NBC containing photos of him brandishing guns and video of him delivering an angry, profanity laced tirade.
AP Photo/Amy Sancetta
Did news judgment really compel NBC and other organizations to use the material Virginia Tech shooter Cho Seung-Hui intended for his epitaph? Or was this a case where revulsion should have left them in a desk drawer?

They're tough questions for journalists, not made any easier by an apparent attempt by television news organizations to have it both ways when the heat was turned up.

"This is the classic ethical issue where there could be multiple right answers and multiple wrong answers," said Bob Steele, a senior journalism ethics faculty member at the Poynter Institute in Florida.

NBC News was at the tip of all these issues when the package of photos, video files and written ramblings from Cho arrived in its mailroom Wednesday. Every other news organization faced the same questions when the material reached the public domain, and virtually all reached the same initial conclusion.

The pictures alone — 11 showed a gun pointed at a camera lens — were repulsive. Many who saw them viewed it as a second attack, an invitation to copycats and a fulfillment of Cho's demented wish for attention.

They sickened Peter Read, whose aspiring schoolteacher daughter Mary Karen was one of the 32 shot dead by Cho on Monday.

"I want to issue a direct personal plea, to all the major media," he told The Associated Press on Thursday. "For the love of God and our children, stop broadcasting those images and those words. Choose to focus on life and the love and the light that our children brought into the world and not on the darkness and the madness and the death."

"Use of the videos and pictures served no compelling purpose and only risked heightening public disgust toward journalists," said Alex Jones, director of Harvard University's Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy.

NBC should have released transcripts of what Cho said, and maybe one still picture, and locked away the rest, he said.

Journalists say it's not for them to decide whether or not the pictures are unpleasant to see, only to judge whether they are newsworthy.