2010 cases: Virginia Tech shootings

Kelsey Bohlen

1. Introduction of the Case

Following the tragic Virginia Tech massacre the morning of April 17, 2007, NBC aired portions of an extremely controversial and explicit video of the highly disturbed shooter, Seung-Hui Cho, psychotically explaining his motives for the attack, waving his weapon, and making threats about the massacre he planned to execute. Cho had mailed a “multimedia manifesto,” which contained 28 explicit video clips, 48 chilling photos, and a 23-page written statement, to NBC just hours after the attack. Prior to the airing and mailing of the now infamous media package, Cho brutally executed a historic reign of terror upon the students and faculty at Virginia Tech University in Blacksburg, Virginia. He opened fire on fellow students at two various locations on campus, Ambler Johnston Hall and Norris Hall, ultimately killing 33 people before turning the gun on himself (Urbina 2007). This unprecedented killing spree left him single-handedly responsible for executing what the media would later dub “the deadliest shooting rampage in American history” (Hauser, 2007).

NBC’s decision to air the graphic video brought to light a major journalistic ethical dilemma surrounding the airing of disturbingly explicit material related to a catastrophic tragedy. Immediately following the public’s viewing of the Cho footage, a slew of controversy engulfed NBC’s radical decision to air the graphic video. Many friends and family members of the victims were horrified by the videos and images and felt as if they were being forced to relive a nightmare. Furthermore, many viewers felt that other mentally disturbed individual’s seeking acknowledgment would see Cho’s 15 minutes of fame and perform a similar act in an attempt to receive recognition. Several students, on the other hand, felt that the footage answered many ambiguous questions and provided a sense of closure by helping them to better understand Cho’s tumultuous mental state and come to the realization that no one could have prevented the massacre under the current circumstances (Berkes 2007). We can ultimately ask: Did NBC exhibit a lack of compassion for family and friends of the victims by airing the video? Furthermore, where should a network draw the line when deciding how much of the explicit footage to air, if any, and what to edit out?

NBC ultimately defended its decision to air the Cho footage despite the enormous public backlash. NBC’s Brian William’s insisted that the “greater good” of the public was at the forefront of the network’s decision and not a ratings boost as many speculated. Furthermore, Steve Capus, the president of NBC news, argued that the news value of the footage was reason enough to air it. The president went on to defend the network by claiming that the video gave the public an unprecedented glimpse into the mind of a serial killer. As one might predict, many critics saw these surface deep explanations as nothing more than a compilation of inadequate excuses for the airing of such explicit content.

Opponents of NBC’s decision to air the Cho video would rightfully argue that the network’s radical decision to do so had extremely suspicious timing and was not done for the greater good of society. Coincidentally enough, NBC’s Williams’ Nightly News had recently experienced a drop in the ratings prior to airing the video, falling second only to ABC’s World News Tonight. Many speculate that airing Cho’s video was an effort to close this gap and in the process served to almost glorify Cho’s actions and threatened to entice “copycat killers” who craved similar infamy. Furthermore, NBC continued to air the video even after its negative reception while other major networks removed it immediately or even refused to air it at all (Gizbert 2007). Does this further solidify the idea that NBC used the Cho tape as nothing more than a tool to increase ratings following a recent slump?

This case eerily resembles the Columbine school shooting with regards to the central journalistic issue that they both address. The primary journalistic issue that has been raised in both cases is where to draw the line when deciding what video footage is appropriate to air. How much explicit and raw content is too much when family and friends of victims are watching at home? In the Columbine case, Patrick Ireland, 16, was filmed dangling from a second-story building and was eventually pulled down by police where he then slammed onto a truck. Due to its explicit content, some local stations chose not to air the footage in its entirety while others aired the whole video (Rosenstiel 2003). In the Virginia Tech case, journalist had to make a similar ethical decision about the airing of Cho’s pictures and video that were sent to NBC. Family and friends of victims in both cases where outraged by the apparent insensitivity of the media, particularly the national media, in airing such raw and disturbing footage.  The competing arguments posed in both cases for and against airing the footage were also generally the same. In both cases, proponents of airing the videos defended their decision by attesting to the news value of the video and the public’s “right to know,” while opponents felt that the content was inappropriate and extremely inconsiderate of victims’ family and friends (Marotta 2007).

Further analysis of the two cases brings about another riveting question: Should different journalistic ethical codes be practiced when deciding whether to air a video of a killer versus one of a victim? This is where the Virginia Tech case brings a different perspective to the journalistic issue at hand. The question posed is ultimately answered by each journalist based upon the ethical and moral code which he/she upholds. It would be important to consider, however, that the public’s reception would likely differ in the sense that an assassin is unanimously despised by all whereas a victim is pitied and mourned for. Ultimately, journalists must take into account the benefits, drawbacks, and analyze the particular situation when deciding whether or not it is ethical to air a video of this nature.

2. Background Context Research

When attempting to further understand the way in which the media covered the Virginia Tech case, it may be helpful to look back at the history and nature of the media’s ethical and professional choices with regards to the coverage of similar tragic events. Many of the media’s tactics and tendencies with regards to reporting these type of stories have raised ethical and moral questions for decades. For example, the airing of graphic and controversial video, like that of Cho’s disturbing messages in this case, is not all too uncommon in the midst of a media frenzy following tragic breaking news. Increasing competition between television stations and other media outlets often lead to the airing of such footage in an attempt to catch viewer attention and increase ratings. Furthermore, the impersonal and methodic way in which the media tend to report on stories such as this also has a history of being frequently scrutinized and ridiculed by the public (Dubner 2007).

As previously mentioned, the airing of controversial footage related to a tragic event in which lives are lost is by no means a new concept. According to the New York Times, even during the coverage of the NASA Shuttle Tragedy of 1986, the grotesque and enthralling film of the tragedy aired on every major national network over and over until it became engraved in the minds of the public. The media acted similarly years later when reporting on the Columbine and Virginia Tech cases by continually airing both the graphic Patrick Ireland and Cho videos.  In both cases, the gory footage was received with mixed reviews. Although many were appalled by their graphic nature, others found it very informative and useful in helping them to grasp the specific nature and magnitude of each tragedy. Regardless of the public’s reaction, it seems that time and time again the media will air graphic footage of an event with little regard for the feelings of victim’s family and friends and perpetually brings the morality and ethical standards of said media into question (Corry 1986).

Though the Federal Communication Commission does have the authority to regulate some media content, most programming is protected by the First Amendment. The graphic video of Cho that aired on NBC, for example, may be considered “indecent material” by some, but such content is protected by the First Amendment and therefore cannot be regulated by the FCC. Indecent material has been defined as “language or material that, in context, depicts or describes, in terms patently offensive as measured by contemporary community standards for the broadcast medium, sexual or excretory organs or activities.” Between the hours of 6am-10pm, the Commission has reserved the right to enforce these regulations. They are not likely to be enforced in this situation, however, given that the nature of the video being classified as indecent material is highly debatable and typically aired after 10pm (FCC 2008).

Furthermore, the media’s chronic tendency to report so methodically and insensitively on tragic matters such as the Virginia Tech Massacre is a frequent topic worthy of digging in the past to better understand. Kate Butler writes in “Inappropriate Mainstream Media Coverage of Tragedy at Virginia Tech” that these type of tragedies involving children and young adults are being reported on in an unethical manner similar to how one might report on casualties of war. The national media is naming the number and names of those murdered, discussing the University’s tactical decisions, and ultimately creating a media frenzy surrounding the very people who need time to heel and mourn their loses. We see this type of coverage constantly throughout history with relation to tragic shooting events and many find this approach extremely inconsiderate of the community and victim’s loved ones. The disturbing increase in the number of school shootings in recent years may sadly be contributing to the frequent references to past events and insensitive nature of the reporting. On the contrary, however, others argue that this approach is simply the most effective way for the media to relay the facts of the incident to viewers (Butler 2007).

That being said, it is certainly worth noting that a media team must vow to uphold certain moral and ethical standards in the midst of reporting on such a highly competitive story, and not allow the thrill of competition to compromise those ethical values. We have perpetually witnessed the varying degrees to which local and national stations will go in order to get certain information or footage on a breaking story. Past media coverage of high-interest tragic stories has revealed the extent to which competition can lure many reporters and networks to go with regards to airing certain footage and crossing other ethically questionable lines. In the Columbine case, for example, each station had to draw an ethical line somewhere when deciding which live juvenile interviews and graphic footage to air, if any. The Virginia Tech and other tragic cases are no different. In any case of this nature that involves graphic images and death, the media will always be held to certain ethical and moral standards and must make decisions about what to air based upon these standards.

Ultimately, when reporting on any case with a tragic outcome, it is necessary as a media outlet to keep various things in mind. History constantly reminds us that we must determine personal ethical boundaries and keep in mind the sensitivity of the community and people involved all while not allowing the thrill of competition to entice us to cross those boundaries. Had all of these factors been considered by the media when reporting on past tragic cases, many controversies and resulting distrust of the media could have been avoided. In the Virginia Tech case, it is important to understand all of the above concepts when analyzing the major journalistic issue posed by this case.

3. Key Questions

When discussing this case, here are a few key questions to consider:

1.     Was NBC justified in airing the video of Cho given the explicit and unnerving nature of its content? Why or why not?

2.     During the Virginia Tech coverage, NBC was lagging behind ABC in the ratings. Was the airing of the Cho video simply a media stunt to boost ratings? Given the oddly coincidental timing of the two events, how was NBC’s reputation affected by the speculation that their motives for airing the video were not in the interest of the public but rather to increase the bottom line?

3.     Many critics of NBC’s decision to air the Cho video felt that the network gave him his 15 minutes of fame that he so longed for. Did the airing of the video in some way advocate heinous crimes by glorifying a murderer?

4.     Seeing the disturbing video of Cho allowed viewers to put a face with the name of the killer. Given that Cho was of Korean decent, how do you think this effected the public’s reaction to the footage? Furthermore, how would you feel about the perpetual airing of the video and growing infamy of Cho if you were part of the Korean community?

5.     When is it ethically acceptable to air disturbing footage of either victims or killers following a tragic event? If ever, where would you draw the line when determining what content to edit out and what to air?

6.     As a journalist reporting on a tragedy, is it more important to be considerate of family and friends of victims when determining what to report, or should you be concerned first and foremost with capturing provocative, realistic images at any cost? Explain.

These questions are significant because they will encourage students to analyze the main             journalistic issue of the case and form their own conclusions based on personal ethical values.

4. Teacher’s Guide

This case has one major journalistic issue at hand which is the ethical dilemma that journalists face when deciding how much, if any, graphic video content is morally acceptable to air, particularly when related to a tragic event. When exploring this issue, I’d like for the class to put themselves in the shoes of the victims, community, witnesses, television networks, or anyone else close to the scene of a tragedy similar to that of Virginia Tech. By doing so, they will be able to more effectively explore the journalistic issue and contemplate what they might do in a similar situation. Would they air explicit video of a victim suffering? Where would they draw the line with regards to editing? Would they show footage of a raging assassin as NBC did, or would that constitute glorification? You can use questions 1, 5, and 6 to help guide a discussion on this issue.

I would also like the class to explore NBC’s motivation behind airing the Cho video.    Was the network’s primary motivation to increase ratings, or were they genuinely wanting to better inform the public? Try to point students towards realizing that this is a matter of ethical standards and principals that help define the reputation of a network over time. Would they compromise their integrity and morals by airing a graphic video for the sake of ratings?  Also, entice them to consider the long term consequences of airing a video of this sort and the impact it would have on one’s professional reputation, respect, and level of public trust. Questions 2 and 3 will be helpful to get a discussion going on this aspect of the issue. The students should ultimately focus on the ethical boundaries that a journalist must set when deciding what is morally and societally appropriate to air.



5. References

“The Public and Broadcasting-fcc.gov”

Media Bureau, July 2008. Web. 15 Nov. 2010.


January 29, 1986, New York Times, The Networks Coverage of the Shuttle Tragedy, John Corry

April 16, 2007, New York Times, Virginia Tech Shooting Leaves 33 Dead, Christine Hauser                               and Anahad O’Connor

April 17, 2007, Inappropriate Mainstream Media Coverage of Tragedy at Virginia Tech, Kate


April 19, 2007, ABC News, Media Backlash at Virginia Tech, Daniel Marotta

April 19, 2007, National Public Radio, NBC Defends Release of Va. Tech Gunman Video,

Howard Berkes, Barbara Bradley, and Jennifer Ludden

April 23, 2007, National Broadcasting Company, London Calling: NBC, the Cho Tapes and

Responsibility, Richard Gizbert

April 24, 2007, New York Times, A Reluctant Note on the Virginia Tech Shooting, Stephen J.


August 30, 2007, New York Times, Virginia Tech Criticized for Actions in Shooting, Ian Urbina

Rosenstiel, Tom, and Amy S. Mitchell, ed. Thinking Clearly: Cases in Journalistic Decision- Making. New York: Columbia University Press, 2003.



6. Other Resources

“Seung-Hui Cho full video Virginia Tech Shooter-YouTube.com”

YouTube.com. 24 April 2007. Web. 17 Nov. 2010.

< https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VyalPi1GeDY>.


One Response to “2010 cases: Virginia Tech shootings”

  1. Jackie S. Says:

    Unfortunately some of your facts are incorrect. The shooting occurred April 16, not April 17. The death toll of 33 included the shooter, did not exclude him. The manifesto sent to NBC News included 25 minutes of video over 27 QuickTime clips, and 43 photographs. The 23 pages of written material fact is correct.

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