Monday, April 23, 2007

Virginia Tech & Video: ethics & etiquette

Following is the Monday/Tuesday column I wrote for five downstate daily newspapers:

This week is the Society of Professional Journalists’ nationwide Ethics Week, when reporters, editors and the audience all talk about journalism ethics – discussions that range from meaningful discourse with the public to worthless navel-gazing.

At its silliest, the contemplation lets media-baiters and -haters discount the hard work and diligence practiced by most reporters and the whole notion of journalism ethics (reminding one of Mahatma Gandhi’s reply to a question about what he thought about Western Civilization: “It would be a good idea.”)

However, this week is a good time to step back and gauge press coverage of the Virginia Tech tragedy, especially television using video mailed to NBC by Cho Seung-Hui, the 23-year-old student who police say killed 32 people and himself on April 16.

In the middle of the worst one-man shooting spree in U.S. history, Cho apparently mailed the DVD and 23 pages of material crudely criticizing others and referring to “martyrs like Eric and Dylan,” the killers at the 1999 Columbine massacre. NBC got the video last Wednesday, notified the FBI and started using it that afternoon.

The material was not news but novelty, gratuitous footage barely better than the primitive cell-phone images repeatedly shown in the days before. But it was footage, and television is a visual medium (recalling another quip attributed to comics Ernie Kovacs and Fred Allen, that it’s “called a medium because it is neither rare nor well-done”).

Despite ostensible regulation by the Federal Communications Commission, NBC had the right to air portions of the video without interference from the government because Americans have the right to a free press, of course.

But as former U.S. Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart said, "Ethics is knowing the difference between what you have a right to do, and what is the right thing to do.")

Most deliberations in most newsrooms about whether or not to use a photo pertains to privacy, taste and safety – exposing innocent people, disturbing the audience and putting people at risk. There’s no hard-and-fast rule because journalists try to present the best version of the truth at deadline to a public served by the information, and there are exceptions to almost everything our unpredictable species does. But there are practical guidelines. The Society of Professional Journalists has a Code of Ethics that mandates we “seek truth and report it, minimize harm, act independently and be accountable.”

Sometimes a compelling reason emerges, but it’s tempered by such concerns, along with common sense, good judgment and sensitivity to the community.

Arguably, maybe only a photo of a grieving parent can convey the heartbreak of a child’s loss, or only a shocking picture of a street with debris including broken glass and a pedestrian’s unshod sneaker can communicate the tragedy of a fatal car crash, or only a stark scene of blood and death can show the horrors of war, whether in Baghdad or Normandy.

But the Cho footage offered no real news. Other facts and comments told us how troubled he’d seemed; an anchor’s summary of the package’s content would have adequately enlightened audiences as to the twisted motives of a disturbed person.

We didn’t need to see his scowl or hear his rants to understand that which cannot be fathomed.
“Minimize harm”? NBC, CBS, Fox and other “news” shows on cable suspected they were not minimizing harm, which is perhaps why NBC anchor Brian Williams said, “This is a sick business tonight, going on the air with this.”

SPJ advises journalists to show compassion and use sensitivity, specifically when “using photographs of those affected by tragedy or grief,” to show good taste, and to avoid pandering to lurid curiosity, plus reminds journalists, “Pursuit of the news is not a license for arrogance.”

Less can be more, as it’s said. But the voracious appetite for visuals (and viewers and profits) can cloud reason – along with perceived pressure from the public. On the one hand, it’s felt, media acting as a filter or gatekeeper in deciding what to sue or withhold is vulnerable to accusations of covering up something. On the other hand, using sensational contents – especially visuals – opens up media to charges of exaggeration, titillation or superficiality.

But in using the video, adrenalin outpaced wisdom.

A week earlier, TV newsrooms had access to a video of a Lynwood, Ill., educator having sex with an employee in his office, and despite the claim it was newsworthy – having caused three resignations – no TV news shows to our knowledge featured it.

But at a time of 24-hour news with pictures, cutthroat media competition, and media access to and from cameras, phones, YouTube and MySpace, it may not be long until such material would be used.

Unless audiences realize that if journalists are to be held accountable, viewers, listeners and readers all must demand quality, not just quantity; substance, not just flash; and etiquette, not just excitement.