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Not Prince Hamlet

"Full of high sentence, but a bit obtuse."

Why NBC Was Right

Tuesday, May 01, 2007

During the unfolding Virginia Tech story two weeks ago, NPH found himself in an argument with his wife and brother-in-law over NBS's decision to air some of the material sent to them by Seung-Hui Cho. Drawing mostly on his affection for Jeff Jarvis, NPH maintained that the network was justified in its decision (though we may not have gone as far as Jarvis, who was pleading with NBC to air all of the material). Journalism's job, we upheld, is to tell the truth to the public and not to sanitize if out of concerns over "what people can handle."

Jarvis can be seen making this exact argument here.

What bothered NPH the most about reaction to NBC's airing of the material was the almost universal assertion that the network was interested primarily in ratings and money. Normally NPH would go there, but in this case it really is a valid question as to whether or not there was a responsibility on the company's part to share with the public the material. Impugning NBC's motives was not helpful.

Today freelance journalist Kevin Sites defends NBC in a column on the Columbia Journalism Review's blog. It's a well-argued piece. A couple of excerpts:

. . . holding back information that is critical to the story, no matter how difficult or disturbing it may be to hear or see, corrupts journalism's ability to report the truth and the public's ability to understand it.
And this:
Some argue that the public need not hear or see the titillating details contained in these videos and photographs, that their only real use is to forensic psychologists and law enforcement officials. But in fact, these clues may be more useful to ordinary people who, by seeing Cho's face, hearing his voice, gaining a visual understanding of what someone who is capable of this kind of violence is like, may be in a better position than law enforcement to spot the early warning signs and prevent another massacre.
And, finally, this:
For those still not convinced that NBC did the right thing, remember, this is the Internet Age. Cho sent his package to NBC, but he could have easily bypassed the mainstream media and posted his videos to YouTube and his photos to MySpace. With the exception of burning the NBC logo onto every photograph and video image to make it seem the package was the result of its own investigative work, NBC handled the material with a sensitivity that wouldn't have happened had it just been uploaded into cyberspace.
The public is actually a participant in the story, as much as news networks and law enforcement officials. What NBC's decision did was to allow citizens, who most certainly have a stake in understanding these types of events, to be a part of figuring out the what and why and how of it all.

Here's hoping that participation bears some fruit. Quickly.
posted by Not Prince Hamlet, 5:06 AM


All excellent points...I'm coming around on this one. I still have that terrible haunting feeling that the gunman "won" by getting all this attention...but sweeping the whole thing under the rug doesn't solve anything either.

Great articles. Thanks.
commented by Blogger Scott, 7:33 AM  
"...what people can handle"?

If your argument wasn't with the missus, I'd love to blather on about "the morality police." As it is, though, I'm scared of her.

Seriously, this begs the question of who it is that decides this threshold. I'm inclined to sympathize with their point, only to the extent that some members of our society may not be mature enough to injest and digest this info. However, the rule of thumb of "never institute a rule of thumb on the basis of an exception to the rule" is my default. Do I want my kids seeing this? No. Am I glad I did? To the extent that I can now understand and help others interpret - yes.

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