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Maniac's Video, Ethics and Tactics


SF Chronicle: Tough decisions on how much to show. Grim video sent by the Virginia Tech killer to NBC News led editors, producers and media ethics experts to resume an uncomfortably familiar debate. “You have to find that line between serving the public’s right to know and the obvious public interest in knowing and understanding as much as we can about this person and how such a thing can happen, and being exploited by his manipulation of you,” said Tom Rosenstiel, director of the Project for Excellence in Journalism.

The only reason this was a dilemma was that NBC had the videos exclusively — though NBC didn’t know that for certain. For all the network knew, the videos were on their way to the competition.

Putting (some of) the videos on the air and online was a foregone conclusion, however. NBC was no more going to hold a scoop of this magnitude than it was going to show an empty chair during the evening news program. MSNBC’s seeming glee in its repeated showing was unseemly, but nothing surprising for the increasingly tabloidish world of cable news.

The existence of the videos was another reminder of media democratization. This insane young man had the tools of media creation, as increasing numbers of of us do these days, and he used them.

But what he did was nothing new. Theodore Kaczynski’s Unabomber manifesto was a mind-numbing piece of work, but media organizations didn’t argue much about publishing excerpts — and the New York Times, to help investigators, published the entire thing.

Video is different. It can inflame our imaginations and passions more than text, at least in recent times.

And responsible media organizations take care what they broadcast and Webcast. Sometimes they kowtow to governments or fear disfavor. Sometimes, as with the beheading of Nick Berg in Iraq, they do it for more humane reasons.

The difference between this week’s Cho videos and the Berg beheading videos is this: NBC had the former excusively, but the criminals who killed Berg posted them publicly for the world to see. In both cases, however, the purpose was similar: to make a point.

Suppose NBC had known for absolute certain that it was holding the only set of videos Cho had made. Would it have run them?

I suspect so, and don’t believe there was much alternative — even though the weird evil it put on the air didn’t much advance the essential story.

The posting (literal posting, as in post office snail mail) of these materials to NBC was an affirmation of Big Media’s continuing influence. But if another Cho, a few years from now, decides to do this kind of thing — “when” is probably a better word than “if” given the way the world grows more warped in some ways — he’d post them more directly, using the Web, to his ultimate audience: you and me.

Like it or not — and the thought is in many ways terrifying — psychos have access to these tools, too.

1 Comment on “Maniac's Video, Ethics and Tactics”

  1. #1 Notes from a Teacher: Mark on Media » Wrestling with ethics
    on Apr 19th, 2007 at 8:28 pm

    […] Dave Winer: Vlogging comes to mass murder BBC: Police ‘regret’ at killer’s video TV Newser: Va. Tech Shootings: New Statement By NBC Defends Decision To Publish Material Huffington Post: NBC’s Tough Decision, Made Tougher On No Time Poynter: Decision Examined: Poynter Discussion of NBC’s Use of the Killer’s Video Canadian Journalist: On giving a killer what he wants Dan Gillmor: Maniac’s Video, Ethics and Tactics […]