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Should We Fear the Photo of a Mass Murderer?

By Ben L. Kaufman · May 2nd, 2007 · Media, Myself & I
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Killings at Virginia Tech might be the most lethal rampage on a U.S. college campus, but news media erred when they said it was the worst shooting/massacre in American history. Ignoring wars on our soil, two still bloodier come to mind:

· Mormons and possibly Paiute allies murdered 120 strangers on a passing wagon train -- men, women and children -- in 1857 at Mountain Meadows, Utah.

· In 1890, U.S. soldiers slaughtered an estimated 150 Dakota Sioux -- men, women and children -- at Wounded Knee in South Dakota.

Such sloppiness also pervaded public reactions to news judgments and coverage. When the enormity of Seung Hui Cho's actions became known and editors decided each story's and image's centrality to our need to know, they knew their news judgment would be attacked as insensitive or inadequate. We didn't let them down.

No one challenges photos and video of wounded being carried out or interviews with survivors and others, but images made by killer Cho and sent to NBC posed editorial questions recalling the Unabomber's demand that his manifesto be published.

Too many editors flinched when offered the glaring, menacing images of Cho with arms outstretched, a pistol in each hand. Timidity won at USA Today, where editors amputated his hands and pistols. This misjudgment turns his pathology into a mug shot. Enquirer and Post Page 1 editors got it right. The Enquirer used the two-pistol photo. The Post showed Cho pointing one pistol at the video camera.

I was in rural Washington state without TV and didn't see Cho's tapes from which these images were taken, but the subsequent debate is familiar, predictable and often devoid of critical thinking.

Yes, Cho's images are upsetting but not nearly so upsetting as being shot at, wounded, witnessing shootings or losing a relative, friend, teacher or classmate to the killer. That, and not a photo, is the traumatic event. We heard this kind of whining years ago when The Enquirer showed a child looking at his dead father shot by a bounty hunter on a Cincinnati street. It might have been The Enquirer's last vivid, local homicide photo; today, too much news is sanitized even when shocking images after shocking events are appropriate.

Images might inspire copycat crimes, but should we apply this logic to movies, movie ads and TV programs that pander graphic violence? So far, our nation chooses to be free to see, hear and read almost anything without undue concern for the most susceptible among us.

That's not risk-free. So why are tens and hundreds of thousands of annual road, alcohol, tobacco and hospital-induced deaths acceptable risks while we rush to surrender our freedoms to the promise of safety from the relatively minor risk of random, even lethal violence?

Invoking journalistic ethical standards we study, some of my NKU students disagree with me. That's why they're a joy year after year. Most who spoke up said words suffice and we don't need Cho's upsetting images to understand what he did (newsworthy but unjustifiable harm). However, one student said, in effect, run photo(s) and be damned (critics fail to overcome the presumption that newsworthy images should be published). Students also disagreed among themselves whether Cho's images might someday help understand why he did it (justifiable versus unjustifiable harm, risk of harm versus potential benefit).

If there were a lesson from Virginia Tech, it's the paucity of coping tools available to faculty and administrators facing rising numbers of seriously emotionally disturbed students.

Curmudgeon notes:
· Must reads: Kimball Perry's wonderful story about the last outhouses in Hamilton County in the April 9 Enquirer. Quotes are pure gold. Dan Horn's vital April 15 Enquirer analysis shows that federal death penalty appeals can be a crap shoot in Cincinnati; rulings can be predicted reliably by whether a Sixth Circuit judge with life tenure was appointed by a Democratic or Republican president. Phillip Knightly graciously reviews a book challenging the story that helped make his reputation as a reporter. In the April 26 New York Review, he reconsiders the spy scandal -- and some of the best investigative reporting -- in postwar Britain. And for a running critique of the Enquirer, the blogger at cincynews ache.blogspot.com offers the authenticity of an insider.

· In addition to unverified attributions to Lincoln, God and other biblical figures, too many politicians, journalists and authors repeat sayings that weren't said. For instance, commentators often refer to cops as the "thin blue line" standing against urban barbarians. That plays on an historic misquote. According to the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders, during the 1854 Crimean battle of Balaklava, London Times war correspondent W. H. Russell reported that nothing opposed Russian cavalry but the "thin red streak tipped with a line of steel." The Scots held, and popular shorthand turned that into "The Thin Red Line." Then there is Churchill's promise to the House of Commons in 1940, "I have nothing to offer but blood, toil, tears and sweat." Historic, but who would pay to hear rockers called Blood, Toil, Tears and Sweat?

· David Halberstam's death recalls an old controversy that most obits miss or ignore. Halberstam of The New York Times and AP's Malcolm W. Browne deservedly won the 1964 Pulitzer Prize for International Reporting for their skeptical, challenging individual reporting of the Vietnam War and the overthrow of the Diem regime. However, colleague Neil Sheehan of UPI didn't share their Pulitzer. Our UPI colleagues blamed a Pulitzer policy limiting any news service to one prize a year, and UPI's Merriman Smith won for his stunning spot coverage of JFK's assassination. Last week Claudia Stone Weissberg, Web site manager for the Pulitzer Prizes, said that as far as her colleagues know, there never was such a policy; AP won two in 1945. She also cited The Pulitzer Prizes by John Hohenberg, who wrote Sheehan "would almost certainly have shared Pulitzer honors that year if he had not been in Japan at the time of the coup against Diem. It was a circumstance to which the jurors repeatedly referred in studying his otherwise impressive exhibit."

· The Postal Board of Governors gives new meaning to "going postal." New, higher rates threaten to kill independent and often-unprofitable partisan journals with their small circulations (compared, say, to Time). The rates -- which critics blame on media giant Time Warner -- favor magazines with larger circulations. Opinion journals are vital alternate sources of information. They are likelier to challenge establishment reporting and political, social and economic conventional wisdom. They motivate readers politically to organize and vote. The Nation on May 7 carries a letter asking Postal Governors to reverse the potentially lethal rate hikes. The Nation says the letter is signed by more than a dozen independent and politically disparate journals including National Review, American Spectator and Mother Jones. See stoppostalratehikes.com.



Ben L. Kaufman teaches journalism ethics at Northern Kentucky University.
 
 
 
 

 

 
 
 
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