Release of tape criticized, but necessary

Providing the who, what, when, where, why, and how of a story to the public can sometimes turn into a complicated situation with questionable ethics.

Providing the who, what, when, where, why, and how of a story to the public can sometimes turn into a complicated situation with questionable ethics.

That was the case two weeks ago when NBC received Virginia Tech murderer Seung-Hui Cho's videotaped manifesto and photo album, which included pictures of Cho brandishing two handguns and holding a knife to his own throat.

NBC turned the package over to the FBI, but the network also viewed and edited it in order to air it later that evening.

Before long, every news outlet began playing the tape of Cho's outburst and showing the photos. CNN and Fox News, in particular, seemed to be running the tape and photos on a continuous loop. That feeling of bombardment began to upset the public.

The day after the tape aired, Virginia State Police Col. Steve Flaherty said he was glad NBC turned the package over to authorities, but was disappointed that the network decided to show it to the public.

"I just hate that a lot of people not used to seeing that type of image had to see it," he said in a number of articles.

But Jeffrey Douglas, communications director of Virginia-Maryland Regional College of Veterinary Medicine and one of the first communications professionals on the scene for the university, says there is another way of looking at this.

"People around the world are tearing their hearts out trying to understand the why of this," he told PRWeek. "And I think it takes just a nanosecond for somebody to look at that person and understand that there's nothing anyone could have done to stop this. This was a very disturbed individual... and letting the world see [him] answered a lot of questions for a lot of people."

Judy Muller, assistant professor of journalism at the USC Annenberg School for Communications, believes NBC when it said the decision to air the tape wasn't an easy one. But she says no other decision could have been made.

"This wasn't even a close call," Muller says. "This was news, and I thought NBC handled it quite responsibly in not rushing it out unedited."

Muller says the tape was significant because it provided the answer people had been looking for since the shootings happened.

"This is the big 'W' of the question; this is the why," she explains. "We knew who, but we didn't know much about him, and here he is telling us about himself."

With a 24/7 news cycle, it's almost a necessity for stations to continually air the footage in order to fill the time. June Cross, assistant professor of journalism at Columbia University's Journalism School, says the tape needed to be aired, but should have been scaled back.

"People don't have anything else to do except run the same video over and over, and it just becomes offensive after a certain point," she says. "There was no balance. Nobody was doing any reporting to try to balance it because they were all just using the video."

NBC was in a tough spot. If it withheld the tape from the public, there would have been anger over not letting everyone see it. On the flip side, the network knew there was going to be some backlash for airing it. In today's environment, the tape would have eventually made its way online - quite possibly in an unedited format - which may have proved even more disturbing. So some argue it's better it was viewed and edited by professionals before being released.

"It would have eventually shown up on YouTube, and all the people who said they were distressed would have been watching it then," Muller says. "There's a lot of hypocrisy in this country about these things. And it's very easy when you're upset to point your outrage at the messenger."

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