After the Virginia Tech shootings earlier this week, the media have been scrambling to try to find out more about the shooter. What was he like? What did he do? What caused him to step over the line?
Then, NBC got a video tape mailed by the shooter. After they debated their options, they decided to turn the original over to authorities after they made a copy to show on the air. People, including families of the victims, were outraged. By the same token, NBC had a golden opportunity for a scoop, and in today's ultra-competitive world, every ratings point counts.
People have weighed in on whether NBC should have run the tape, but few have the perspective of someone who controls the content of a media outlet. Although my website doesn't get the traffic of NBC, I do have control over the content on the site, so I feel qualified to speak to this controversy.
In journalism school, I was taught that getting a story at the expense of the feelings of others The classic example is the photojournalist who took a great picture of a man who had just drowned and his grieving wife. At some point, there needs to be a value judgment made. Sure, the picture could make the photojournalist and the newspaper he/she works for famous, but at what price? Does the public really need to see the suffering of the woman?
In today's news environment, the answer to those questions are a) at any price, and b) absolutely. NBC says they weighed the pros and cons of airing the tape, and I wasn't privy to their debate, so I can't say one way or the other how intensely they considered these questions.
What I can say is that I think their decision to run the tape was wrong. Nothing good can come from evil, especially not an evil like we saw at Virginia Tech. Thirty-two people lost their lives at the hands of one mentally disturbed young man armed with handguns. His words and pictures served no real purpose and could only widen the wounds we all felt as he shot the students in cold blood. If I were someone in charge at NBC, I would have turned over the tape and pictures to the authorities, gone on the air, and said the following:
"Ladies and gentlemen, the Virginia Tech shooter sent us photographs and a video tape of his cruel exploits that cost 32 people their lives. It is news. We had every right to show it to you. And we would have been the only major network who could show it to you. But we won't because nothing good would come of it. We would be giving the shooter publicity at the expense of the families and friends of the slain, and that is something we cannot in good conscience do. We have turned the tape and photos over to the authorities because they will do more with this material than we could and should. There will be people who will criticize and malign our decision not to show the footage. We will meet their criticism with a proud and resolute heart because we will know that we didn't inflict more pain in the pursuit of a story that is painful enough as it is."
That's what makes great journalists, NBC. Knowing when you don't need to tell a story.