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On April 16, 2007, at 7:15 a.m., Cho Seung-Hui killed two students in West Ambler Johnston Hall, his coed residence at Virginia Tech, before returning to his dorm room, changing his clothes and deleting his school email account and computer hard drive. At 9:01 a.m. he mailed a package containing an 1,800-word essay; photographs of himself holding a hammer like a baseball bat, putting a knife to his own throat and pointing his guns at the camera; and a video of his hate-filled rants. Then he entered Norris Hall, the engineering building, chained the doors shut and posted a note claiming that a bomb would go off if anyone attempted to escape. He moved up to the second floor where he started shooting with a Glock 19 and a Walther P22. Police arrived, broke down the barricade and entered the building—by the time they reached the second floor the shots had stopped.

The shooting spree ended with 33 people, including Cho, dead and another 27 injured. As reporters descended on Blacksburg, Virginia, they all wanted to know who the shooter was and why he did it. Some of the answers were in the package Cho had mailed that morning, but because he’d used the wrong zip code, it didn’t reach NBC News for two days. Shortly after it arrived the American network aired the videotape. “You have vandalized my heart, raped my soul and torched my conscience,” a detached Cho said at one point in the video. “Thanks to you, I die like Jesus Christ, to inspire generations of the weak and defenseless people.”

Troy Reeb was watching in Toronto and realized he had a difficult decision to make. The vice-president of news operations at Global News quickly consulted senior executive producer and anchor Kevin Newman and Global National producer Marc Riddell. They all agreed the video was newsworthy and that the public had a right to see it, but they also knew Cho’s last wish was to garner fame. At 7:25 p.m., Reeb did something he rarely does: he sent a memo with guidelines to all Global News and CH News programs across Canada. “The video created by Cho Seung-Hui was clearly designed to frighten and to glorify his own madness. We should not assist him in either goal, and therefore must be very judicious in how we use the video, as well as the photographs and audio accompanying it,” the memo read. Reeb explained that airing the video was warranted as long as programs did so in context and didn’t “allow the broadcast of Cho’s own words to justify his actions.” Use of the videotape and photos should be kept to a minimum—for example, in stories that hoped to explain the psychology of murder—but not as “wallpaper.” Instead, Reeb suggested reporters and editors use footage of the campus or stills of the victims. The memo also noted that the anniversary of the Columbine massacre was the next day and coverage of that event had inspired another shooting the following week.

A little further east in the Toronto suburbs, Robert Hurst faced the same dilemma. After a 15-minute discussion with senior editors, the CTV News president decided his show would also air the video, but sparingly and with warnings about the nature of the content. He then sent out a “red line call,” an alert to all the networks’ news directors and senior producers that an issue needed to be handled immediately.

But in downtown Toronto, Tony Burman came to a different conclusion. The CBC editor-in-chief had a conference call with the senior staff of The National for 30 minutes and decided the video was not illuminating; airing it would only romanticize Cho in the eyes of others. “It was like the verbal diarrhea of a very sick man,” says Burman, who left the corporation last July. Instead, CBC News reported the essence of the video and ran a still of Cho without showing any weapons.

That decision was consistent with a position the network developed after a spate of school shootings followed the one at Montreal’s Dawson College in September 2006. “I think that sent alarm bells certainly in the minds of a lot of specialists who often expressed worry that because of the media coverage of these incidents, that there was the real possibility of copycat killings,” says Burman. Although he felt his network’s coverage of the Dawson tragedy was strong, he worried CBC could be guilty of glorifying gunman Kimveer Gill. “We basically said, ‘Look, the tragedy of these kinds of stories is that they will happen again, and when it happens again, we will try to be a bit more restrained,’” he explains. “And really, that’s what I think one saw in CBC’s coverage of Virginia Tech.”

Burman posted a letter on the network’s website explaining he and his team wanted to apply the lessons they had learned from the autumn shootings, and from audiences and experts. After NBC News aired the video, he included a postscript: “I imagined what kind of impact this broadcast would have on similarly deranged people.” He then added, “I had this awful and sad feeling that there were parents watching these excerpts on NBC who were unaware they will lose their children in some future copycat killing triggered by these broadcasts.”

Few recurring tragedies challenge the news judgement of journalists the way school shootings do. Aside from not wanting to give the perpetrators the publicity they so desperately seek, producers, editors and other decision-makers must worry about their coverage inspiring imitators. And yet these horrific events are not just news, they also raise difficult questions about gun laws, mental health systems and other issues, so staying away is not an option. All three agree that shootings need to be handled delicately, but beyond that, there’s plenty of debate.

In April 1999, Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold walked into Colorado’s Columbine High School dressed in black trench coats and armed with several weapons. They killed 12 students, one teacher and wounded 23 other people before turning their guns on themselves. It wasn’t the first school shooting, but the amount of media coverage it received helped make it both a template and a motivation for other disturbed minds. At least four school shootings followed before the end of the year. And Columbine remains a powerful example even now.

Kimveer Gill had talked about his obsession with that massacre in a video he posted on YouTube before carrying out his own version at Dawson College. The 25-year-old drove to the school, grabbed his Beretta Cx4 Storm semi-automatic carbine and opened fire before entering the building. He then moved through the premises toward the cafeteria, where he fired at two students and ordered others to get back. When it was over, Anastasia DeSouza and Gill were dead. It later came out that he had been an avid player of a video game that simulated the events of Columbine.

Cho also referred to “Eric and Dylan” as “martyrs.” And the day before 18-year-old Pekka Eric Auvinen killed eight people at a Finnish school in November 2007, he posted “Jokela High School Massacre” on YouTube. In it, “Stray Bullet,” by rock band KMFDM—whose lyrics were cited by Harris and Klebold—played in the background as Auvinen announced his intentions.

Many of the shootings that came after Columbine created their own clusters of copycats, according to Loren Coleman, author of Copycat Effect. After Dawson College, he emailed CTV saying, “I predict that this week or next, there may be another major ‘going postal’ workplace rampage or school shooting.” Two weeks later, a man held six girls hostage in a Colorado high school and killed one of them. Two more shootings occurred within the next five days.

While Hurst knows about the research that suggests media coverage leads to imitators, he says there is no definitive proof. “There are studies done on the other side saying if you withhold terrible information that you are being counterproductive to the progress of society,” he says, adding that the coverage may encourage others to seek help. “If there was real empirical evidence, an overwhelming body of evidence, that a Virginia Tech or a Columbine or a Dawson College actually generated and produced copycats saying that was their prime motivation, we would report on the studies and evidence.” Hurst also believes showing the video of Cho not only helps public understanding, but that psychologists, sociologists and university educators learn from it too, especially when the gunman explains what drove him to mass murder.

Psychologists have already identified disturbing similarities among the people responsible for these tragedies. “If you pull suicide so far inward, it turns to homicide,” says Coleman. School shooters are often narcissistic and resentful, feeling the whole world should know about their problems. “Someone with extremely malevolent motives has figured out a way to manipulate the press and has gotten a tremendous amount of press by doing it,” says Jordan Peterson, a professor of clinical psychology at the University of Toronto. He doesn’t believe in censorship, but would like to see these events covered with less focus on the killer. Bill Radunsky, a professor of journalism ethics at Cambrian College in Sudbury and the brother-in-law of Kristen French, who was killed by Paul Bernardo, agrees. “Some people have a bent idea of how fame works. They don’t care how they get fame or how they get into the news,” he says. “It’s the perpetrator that gets remembered and the victims get forgotten.” Sometimes the media get caught up and further hurt the survivors. In the Virginia Tech case, several families of the victims cancelled plans to appear on NBC’s Today show to protest the network’s heavy use of the video. NBC News responded by reducing how often and how much of the video it used.

Every member of the Radio-Television News Directors Association of Canada adheres to the organization’s Code of Ethics, which states that, “Reporting on criminal activities such as hostage-takings, prison uprisings or terrorist acts will be done in a fashion that does not knowingly endanger lives, offer comfort and support or provide vital information to the perpetrator(s).” CBC also has its own Journalistic Standards and Practices, which breaks down how to handle language, sex and nudity, grief and suffering and violence. It states that violence is not to be exploited and that there “must be a balance between respect for the audience and the obligation to respect reality.” While television networks face the most pressure to rethink the way they report such tragedies, at least one newspaper, the Toronto Star, is rewriting its policy manual. Managing editor Joe Hall says a subcommittee is looking at the coverage of crime and victims.

The three bosses at CBC, CTV and Global News made different decisions when confronted with Cho’s video—but none of them has any regrets. CBC refused to comment on whether new publisher John Cruickshank would follow Burman’s guidelines, but the former boss hopes the debate over broadcasting the gunman’s “media manifesto” will encourage all journalists to think twice next time. Still, Global’s Reeb, stands by his decision. He worries that not airing the video would have simply driven viewers, especially impressionable ones, to seek it out elsewhere. “And those locations,” he says, “aren’t necessarily going to have the responsible context professional journalism would provide.”

When Hurst and Burman took part in a Radio and Television News Directors Association panel discussion in Vancouver last June, both were critical of how the other’s organization had handled the issue. Although Hurst didn’t comment on Burman’s decision, he believes any news organization that wants to hold back or restrain information had better have more to go on than just a gut reaction. Journalists, he says, should avoid putting themselves in the position of playing God, of saying to the viewers, “‘I’ve seen the video and it’s horrible, and you can’t handle it.’”

Elly Alboim, a journalism ethics expert at Carleton University and a former CBC parliamentary bureau chief, believes his former network’s instincts were largely correct, but the decision not to show any of the video was going too far. He argues the public had a right and a need to see it. “There’s a difference between providing enough information for people to make a judgement,” he says, “and running it for its own sake.”

For his part, CBC ombudsman Vince Carlin thought the video might be of interest to some segments of the population, but doesn’t think including it added much to the reporting. “Visual elements are often done for competitive reasons,” he says, “not for journalistic reasons.”

Alboim agrees that NBC’s judgement may have been coloured by competition with its rivals. Although the network’s decision to air the material it received from Cho generated disgust and outrage from the public, NBC Nightly News ratings averaged 10.3 million compared to the usual 9.2 million viewers. “People are less conscious of their moral and professional obligations because no matter what they do, the material is going to be available,” says Alboim. “There’s so much pressure on the competitive side. The odds of keeping the gate shut and being a sole participant in that situation are very small.”

But competition isn’t the only consideration. Hurst warns that any producer, editor or reporter can do is perform his or her job responsibly and ethically. “Journalists are not psychologists, we are not sociologists, we are not medical doctors,” he says. “When you, as a news organization, set yourself up as believing you know better, you are performing the role of a psychologist, which you are not trained to do.”

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About the author

Jennifer Webb was the Director of Communications for the Summer 2008 issue of the Ryerson Review of Journalism.

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