Friday, April 20, 2007

It's not journalism if you just show it

The Virginia Tech massacre was also a lesson in journalism, from the way the shootings were covered to what was covered.

I have to admit that I’m still conflicted about how and what the media should have covered, especially after seeing gunman Cho Seung-Hui’s home-made video that was aired on NBC and then picked up everywhere else.

I have to ask myself over and over again, how I would have handled this assignment. I have read some stories about Cho with interest, I would even call it a dark curiosity for morbid details, like what the writing on his arm could mean, how his roommate met him on the way to the bathroom, his speaking manners. But after having read the stories, I would often ask myself, was that necessary? Did I take anything valuable away from this or did I just satisfy my own desire for drama. In other words, was it news or was it entertainment?

As I struggle to find the answer, I’ve come to think that at least for me, and for now, there is one yardstick to measure newsworthiness: whether or not we learned something from that story. Now I know not everything on the news is pure information: There is a need for kickers, some fun stories every once in a while. But clearly, the Virginia Tech shooting is not one such instance.

In the case of Cho’s video, executives at NBC and other stations tried to justify their decision to air the video, while at the same time giving the mic to experts or man-on-the-streets who generally found it “disgusting” and “sick.” I would have to say I sided with those who find the video aweful and I fear that it glorifies Cho, at least to some disturbed or impressionable minds out there.

What, if anything, did we learn from watching that video? What was the message producers were trying to send? Now it wouldn’t be so bad if news outlets used only clips of the video to discuss larger issues, like mental health or depression. But on, the video, listed at the top of its Most Popular section, was pretty lenghty (2:07 minutes) and published without any type of expert comment or digestion, except for this short title and caption: “Chilling video of a killer - Photos and videos sent to NBC by Virginia Tech gunman Cho Seung-Hui give a glimpse of his psyche.”

I just don’t see any journalistic value or process in that. Yeah, I’m sure they “edited” it… to make it short enough for the Web. But what was the message the producers wanted to send to viewers - or did they simply want to be an outlet for Cho’s message?

If they didn’t, they should have digested it for the viewer. And it’s not enough that they have done so in other parts of or on the television broadcast. The video itself should have contained some analysis or background. Granted, viewers drawn to Cho’s destructive message can just skip all the journalism and analysis, and get straight to what they want, especially on the Internet. just made it really easy for them.


At Friday, April 20, 2007, Blogger AJS said...

I disagree. I think CNN made many attempts to analyze it on TV. But the beauty of the web is that I don't have to sit through a 30 minute newscast to get the two minutes I want. All CNN did was put video it had already showed on TV on the web. No problem with that.

As well, I think we definitely learned something from the video. That, to me, is beyond question. I think we did get a view into his psyche and we got at least some small clue into the motivation. And there's a difference between repeating something and glorifying it. Look at how everyone repeated what Don Imus said. Or when videos of Hitler are shown. Showing someone who looks like a raving lunatic in the throes of lunacy doesn't glorify him, but it does give me an idea of what was going on in his sick mind.

At Saturday, April 21, 2007, Blogger MK said...

I tried to steer clear of coverage about the video after seeing it once on NBC. I had a disccussion with my dad about its value and "newsworthiness." We both thought it was necessary to air to let viewers digest on their own its contents. I said I would have been a little more selective in what was shown and my dad said he would have been more forthcoming. I thought some of the tirades and some of the pictures could have been described by the news media instead of directly shown. I would have lobbied for more discretion in releasing very little. Perhaps after some time had passed, I would have released more despite what my competition chose to do.

At Saturday, April 21, 2007, Blogger MW said...

Sometimes, I think this material becomes far more enlightening when presented in another context. I'm thinking of "Elephant" (Gus Van Sant's film, loosely based on Columbine) or "Taxi Driver" (Martn Scorsese's film, Arthur Bremer's diary providing a blueprint for DeNiro's character), where everything's filtered through an artist's sensibility.

Journalism isn't produced like a work of art, and for understandable reasons. Artists, even mediocre ones, leave their impression of the world on everything they make; they're meant to be subjective and personal. Few people think of journalism as completely objective, but ideally, any subjectivity that appears in a journalist's work should not be a product of intentional bias.

With that in mind, if you air the rants of a lunatic by those standards, it provides the subject with an unfiltered channel to the audience. You can throw on some music or intercut it with self-righteous criticism, but that can only do so much.


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