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Sunday, April 22, 2007

Media Accountability (LMK-i-A gets serious)

A friend and former co-worker from my MotherCorp days asked me what I thought of the CBC's decision not to air the videos the Virginia Tech gunman sent to NBC.

I wasn't aware of this situation until she mentioned it, but I'm not surprised. Media outlets make editorial decisions all the time. Yes, "editorial decisions". Some are calling this censorship, but I disagree.

I was travelling when the footage became public, so I saw the range of responses. CNN appeared to have it on a loop. USA Today printed a cropped picture of the killer: you could see his face but not the guns. The Globe & Mail printed a picture of the killer with a gun to his head (try explaining that to a six-year-old). I'm told that the CBC aired descriptions of the videos but not the footage itself.

This is a free society and networks are free to make their own editorial decisions. It would be censorship if a government agency told the media what to publish. It is not censorship for a news agency to hold back some of the footage. Networks do this all the time.

I was in my fourth year of journalism school in Halifax when the Swissair plane crashed. Some of the recent graduates were assigned to cover the story. Trust me, reporters were holding back a LOT of the details. They couldn't handle it. They had footage of dead people floating in the water off Peggy's Cove. Usually, the rule is "film everything and make editorial decisions in the edit suite", but the CBC videojournalists turned off their cameras so the images could never be broadcast, ever. On air, they talked about "body parts", but in person they talked about lungs washing up on shore, or looking down and seeing a brain. They showed images of waves crashing and people sobbing, but anyone who went to Peggy's Cove would have seen intestines floating in the water. This was not censorship: this was an editorial decision. The reporters didn't pretend that these horrible things weren't real; they just chose to talk about them rather than to show them. Similar editorial decisions have been made in other situations, especially murder cases. Reporters often have pictures of crime scenes but decide not to use them.

The Virginia Tech gunman wanted his insane ramblings to be aired on television. That is the only possible reason for mailing them to NBC. Journalists were then forced to decide if the images had any news value and, if so, whether they should be published or broadcast.

I think it's quite clear that the images have news value. In fact, I don't think there's a credible argument to be made that they don't have news value. However, I think there's room for discussion about how to use them. For example, USA Today cropped the guns out of the photo they published of the killer. This showed his face but completely removed the context for the image. I think this was the photo editor's goal: to publish the killer's photo on their own terms, not his. The Globe & Mail's decision to publish the shot of the killer holding a gun to his own head was clearly an effort to show a representative photo from the set that was sent to NBC. It's not often that you'll see a newspaper allow the subject of a news article to submit his own glamour shots, but this was an unusual case. I don't know if any major news agencies decided to hold back the photos in favour of describing them, but I doubt it.

Having seen the looped tape on CNN as a backdrop to Nancy Grace's wild theories about who should be charged with a crime, I have to agree with CBC. The video definitely had news value: it presented the killer's own words about why he committed the crimes. But when the Unabomber sent his manifesto to The Washington Post, the editors didn't rush to publish it just because they had something of news value.

A reporter's job is to report news, not to be the enabler in a homicidal maniac's quest for publicity. This was such a clear-cut case of a killer trying to use the media for his own purposes that it's really rather surprising that so many journalists took the bait.


The Capitalist said...

Hmmm, I kinda think the guy made his point & gained publicity by his actions, not his taped message. The tape was just an explanation... We should be able to understand that if a guy is to take such a response as to kill 32 people (and himself), he may want to clarify why he's doing it. Would you put your child in "time-out" without explaing to him why you are doing it?

I think the voices of picked-on children are voices that need to be heard. It's just sad that they feel they have to do such insane things to make people listen.

Anonymous said...

I have to agree with Megan, Capitalist. It took a minute for me to understand your punished child analogy, which I grant. What I don't grant is that this guy was just a "picked-on" child. Direct provocation from one or two sources is very different than pure derangement. There are other ways to be heard. The one he chose is purely ineffectual. Millions of kids are bullied every day, but it's the ones we continue to tread lightly around who seem to blow a gasket at the slightest insult. I'm not advocating rudeness and cruelty, but saying that generations of the human race from the beginning of time have been able to corral their emotions. Massacring a college campus is not the result of a simply bullied kid.

The Capitalist said...

I accept I'm no scholar on this subject, but I'm unaware of any kids who have done this without having been bullied. I also must say that, as terrible as it is, I would think it IS effectual.

I don't understand why our society would rather settle for simply calling something "evil" rather than attempting to understand it. This is what gets us in trouble both at home & overseas.

However, I do tend to agree that bullying may not be the only thing to blame.

I hate to say it, but we have to accept this guy is now a hero to many other troubled children. How else can we explain the numerous threats than come in to other schools once something like this happens?

Anonymous said...

Indeed you have a point that he is now a hero to some.

What I find frustrating is that, yes, events like these make a positive impression on some people (stop bullying), but the rest, which also happens to be the majority, don't see it that way.

Ben Holsapple said...

"Let him die alone, with no one having heard his name."

Not my view, but one I thought had merit. Of course, it would be impossible in practice. Whatever.

Steve & Megan said...

I read today that after John Lennon was shot, the media refused to release the name of the shooter. They knew that he was seeking infamy and didn't want to give it to him. That was a different time.