The Virginia Tech Massacre
On 16 April 2007, media houses from different continents stormed into Virginia after getting information that a massacre had taken place. Some of the prominent journalists present included American news anchors Brian Williams, Charles Gibson, and Katie Couric (Santos 13). The media had soon branded the incident as the worst school shooting in the history of American crime. To add to the widespread, national media reporting of the incident, there was deep speculation after the mass murder over the psychological state of the perpetrator. The focus also shifted away from the murderer and the tragedy to the conduct o the media with journalistic ethics being put under the spotlight. Other secondary issues that came up during the post-analysis of the massacre were the nature and efficiency of the gun control policy in the United States.
The Virginia Tech Massacre was a school execution that occurred in two separate locations in April 2007. One attack happened at the Virginia Polytechnic Institute campus while the other happened at the State University in Blacksburg. The two attacks were the work of one Seung-Hui Cho, a student studying at the Virginia Tech who shot and murdered over thirty people and injured 16 others in both attacks. After roughly two hours of terrorizing students and workers, Seung-Hui Cho committed suicide. The massacre was recorded as the most disastrous shooting episode by a solitary gunman in U.S. history. The journalism industry played a major role in the Seung-Hui Cho case in several ways. The media was responsible for broadcasting the events as they took place, they were also vital in painting the image for the murderer and handling some of the material that Cho used to pass his messages (Santos 45).
The sequence of events during the two shootings happened as follows. Seung-Hui Cho first proceeded to the West Ambler Johnston Hall at around 6:40 am. The hall was only accessible through magnetic pass cards that Cho surprisingly had. Cho’s first victims were shot at about 7: 40 am. Some of his victims in this hall included Emily J. Hilscher and Ryan C. Clark. After this first shooting, Cho returned to his hostel room to erase any evidence from his clothes and even deleted his email inbox. At about 9 am, Cho made his way to the neighborhood post office and sent a parcel containing letters and video clips to NBC News. After mailing his package, he Norris Hall with an arsenal of several crude weapons, sharp objects, handguns and over 300 rounds of ammunition. Cho barricaded the main hostel doors with chains, a padlock and a bomb threat lest the door be opened. Norris Hall served as the Engineering Science and Mechanics tuition block. After that, Cho began randomly shooting students, faculty members and staff on the second floor and the third floor before committing suicide in room 211. In total, over 54 people were killed, shot or injured from trying to escape being shot. Naturally, the media covered a large part of all these proceedings and therefore, the next section deals with the contribution of the media.
Perpetrator’s Condition and its Coverage by the Media
Seung-Hui Cho had earlier been identified with a critical anxiety disorder. The larger part of his middle and high school years were spent receiving treatment and special education. However, federal privacy laws enabled him to apply for a position at Virginia Tech despite his previous medical condition. After studying for a while, Seung-Hui Cho had his first incident after allegedly stalking two female students. After an inquiry, it was established that Cho was mentally unstable and was recommended for further therapy. The year that the stalking incident happened was in 2005. The media’s role of presenting news in an objective and no-partisan way was quickly forgotten after the shooting at Virginia Polytechnic. Almost all media houses rushed to their viewers and audience with the news that they had been right all along and that Cho was indeed a mentally ill patient. In a warped way, the bulk of the media were passing the message that they had blown the whistle on Cho very early in 2005 and that no one seemed to care.
Sources of information for Cho’s killing spree
From the different reports given by media houses, it is evident that a large part of their evidence, accounts and material on Cho’s life history, medical condition and actions were gleaned from colleagues and relevant authorities. The largest amount of information on Seung-Hui Cho was provided by his colleagues who had witnessed his behavior for a longer period. The colleagues were responsible for issuing information on his behavior towards women, his academic performance, his private life and his constant battle with anxiety. In fact, one of his colleagues had earlier warned the police that Cho had displayed suicidal tendencies. The media houses had conducted video, audio and written interviews with almost everyone who had encountered Cho including the two girls who were allegedly stalked by him in 2005 (Jones 12). The next group of individuals that provided a wealth of technical information on Cho’s psychological status was medical practitioners. Starting from the medical and rehabilitation officers who had treated Cho earlier to the officer who made the examination before diagnosing Cho as being ‘depressed’, the media collected any piece of information on the suicide killer. While much of this information was first-hand, it was not dependable. The amount of material that backed the personal accounts was too insignificant to make a valid conclusion.
Role played by Media in Cho’s Cases
While it was apparent that Seung-Hui Cho was mentally unstable and had been diagnosed with anxiety disorders, the last moments before his own suicide were marked with weighty statements directed at one of the media houses. While videotaping himself, the perpetrator of the manslaughter on the Virginia Tech campus said that the disaster could have been evaded and said that he had been coerced into a position where there were no other options. After recording the clip, he had it mailed to NBC News offices. In an ill-timed bid to clear their name, the news company immediately announced that Cho had delivered the videotape at about 9 am- the duration between the two separate killings- before committing suicide. Apart from this message, the news house, NBC News had many more hours of video that showed Cho talking about martyrs, equality and consumerism. All these gory, disturbing and villainous moments were broadcasted as they were originally stated by Cho himself. It was as if the news firm was bent on painting Cho as an evil, wicked and dangerous individual who had thrived on the death of his fellow colleagues while in essence, Cho was a mentally disturbed individual who had a disorder that eventually caused the lives of others.
One media house, NBC News, was able to get first-hand information from the Cho when he mailed to the station his confessions and explanations as to why he performed the shootings. However, the manner in which they handled the material that was classified as evidence by the police was unprofessional, illegal and obstructing justice. Apparently, upon receiving the package, NBC contacted the authorities but also publicized part of the material on television, the Internet and radio. The overwhelming reaction by the surviving students, relatives and authorities was enough proof that NBC News had committed a grave mistake that would glorify the killer and trigger subsequent massacres (Jones 57).
The media house was also inconsiderate to the plight of those injured and traumatized by replaying the terrorist’s videotapes immediately after the disaster had occurred. The NBC president, Steve Capus defended his company’s stand to release over 40 images, 20 minutes of film and 23 pages of written manifestos arguing that they had not aired anything profane or violent (Weinberg 26). While essentially, Capus was not out of line to argue the way he did, the logic that broadcasting such material in the wake of a large massacre was clear. Instead, media houses such as NBC seek viewer ratings irrespective of the impact that their broadcasts have on the victims and their families (Roy 167).
The manner in which the journalist sector in America covered the Virginia Tech massacre was very dismal. The initial media news by reporter Michael Sneed from the Chicago Sun-Times inaccurately blamed a Chinese citizen as the alleged shooter. This report was replicated by different media houses around the world. The flawed reports were distributed for more than half a day until Seung-Hui Cho was officially confirmed as being Korean (Fox 187). The Chinese Foreign Ministry released a statement that criticized reckless journalism and strongly noted that it was an appalling oversight and an infringement of official ethics to publicize reports before confirming the details.
The extent of this erroneous information was heavily felt by one Wayne Chiang, a graduate of Virginia Tech who unfortunately was also a zealous enthusiast of the right to bear arms as he was broadly assumed the perpetrator in the massacre. This is because his characteristics matched several key qualities of the suspected spree killer wrongly mentioned by the Chicago Sun-Times. Wayne Chiang received a surge of hate mail and murder threats that prompted him to declare publicly that he was not the perpetrator. Immediately after the perpetrator was identified, several media house had already named Chiang erroneously, including CNN and Fox News. His portrait was also posted severally in a CTV montage of images of the actual perpetrator even after the attacker had been confidently recognized as Cho Seung-Hui. Several “school shootings experts” also blamed violent games distributors for the massacre caused by Cho as they alleged that he was an avid player of Counter-Strike, a violent role-playing game. The normal behavior by TV stations to hold viewers sabotage by pre-empting regular shows in preference for breaking news was also replicated. Most of the major local and national television networks followed the proceedings form the hospital, campus and police posts. Popular TV networks such as CNN, NBC and Fox News Channel had even covered the first gunshots in the West Ambler-Johnston hostel (Fox 45).
Cho’s Media package in America and the Rest of the world
Hardly a week had passed before television channels started releasing documentaries on the massacre starting with NBC that broadcasted the video clips and some images that were contained in the package mailed by the spree killer, Seung-Hui Cho. The package that had been labeled a multimedia manifesto had been mailed to NBC’s New York head offices after which they were taken to the FBI for further investigation. Foreseeing disapproval that broadcasting the video clips would be irresponsible and unethical, NBC president Steve Capus argued that airing the issue and dispensing the information was a journalistic obligation, to offer context and history on Seung-Hui Cho’s possible incentives (Roy 46).
Most family members of the dead students were upset that the images and video clips mailed by the perpetrator were being aired, and consequently called off interviews with NBC in objection. Within the main campus, the erroneous reports had already disenchanted the students and after a week, studies resumed in the classes. Students were also advised to desist from contacting media houses with information on any kind concerning the massacre. The law enforcement officers in Virginia State were also disappointed by the editorial verdict to air the alarming images and added that it was regrettable to see media houses acting as if they ‘celebrated’ the perpetrator. While NBC News was first to access and air the video clips, all national and local channels followed suit in broadcasting portions of the videos. This was done against the recommendation of the American Psychiatric Association that the video clips would trigger similar suicides, murders and other massacres. NBC News argued they had covered the tragedy with tremendous sensitivity. However, the public, survivors and authorities held a different opinion. It was evident that media houses were bent of airing controversial, tragic and extreme stories despite the ethical repercussions.
The NBC president also maintained that they had edited out the major amounts of profane material and that the final video was ratified by state and federal authorities as being appropriate for public consumption. The next company to reproduce NBC’s information at length was Fox News that replayed and supported NBC’s release of the obscene materials. Most of the media houses did confine coverage in the consequent days due to public protest, while many Mid-Atlantic TV channels chose to terminate airing it overall after the first 24 hours (Fox 23). For example in Canada, the killers’ footage was not even aired in all TV channels. In other places, there was a unanimous call for the sacking of NBC president Steve Capus over his decision to air the perpetrator’s footage (Roy 34).
There was widespread reporting of the Virginia Tech massacre and their consequences in states globally, with many channels and newspapers posting journalists to Virginia to cover the tragedy. Various newspapers across the world placed the account as their headlines. The shootings triggered the normal comments and editorials that routinely criticize the U.S. gun control policies among the developing countries. In the United Kingdom, The Times newspaper ran a critique of the American gun control policy blaming the state for being lax in controlling weapons while stringent measures in Europe were working more effectively. Meanwhile, on the front page of the Ottawa Citizen, there was a campaign for tighter gun regulations in protest of the increasing deaths through gun-totting criminals (Santos 37).
In Sweden, the Goteborgs-Posten commented that the Virginia Tech massacre could have been avoided if weapons were unavailable because the basic reason was frequently the killer’s psychological issues combined with availability of weapons. In Japan, the Asahi Shimbun also commented on the state of American gun laws. It seemed that the issue of damaging one’s image, wrongful reporting of news and ethical conduct were only important in the United States. Most of the media houses in other continents failed to mention these issues and instead focused on the security problem in America. This reinforced the fact that journalism ethics was still a developing notion that had not been fully embraced by most countries (Jones 187).
However, in defense of NBC News and other media houses, there were several reasons that would have validated them airing the footage. First, the airing of the footage and images of Cho shooting his colleagues was important in that it would help in understanding and assisting people with similar anxiety and in the process avoid similar shootings in the future. Part of the reason as to why Cho was able to murder very many people was because his symptoms and needs were neglected. Second, the unpredictable nature of mentally ill individuals was finally highlighted by the footage aired. Anyone who was not comfortable with the news proceedings had the option of switching off the television (Santos 17).
The media in the United States and the rest of the world played various roles in covering the Virginia shootings. Their efforts at broadcasting each tiny detail and event that took place, every relevant image as well as different accounts enabled the rest of the world to grasp the implications of Seung-Hui Cho’s actions. However, there are several regulations and norms that govern the collection and reporting of news materials that were consequently violated n the covering of Seung-Hui Cho’s massacre. These violations work towards lowering the quality and credibility of the information being relayed. News agencies are depended upon by the rest of the citizens to provide information that is valid, candid and accurate. When this objective is not achieved, it is time to question the purpose or role that media houses play in providing news.
The shootings at Virginia Polytechnic Institute Campus were not the first instance when public security was threatened. Previous gun totting incidents that left numerous Americans dead have occurred in Bath and other universities and high schools. The increased rate of murders involving guns has prioritized the gun control debate within Congress. The Obama administration is increasingly being pressured to act swiftly and curb the mounting number of unregistered and illegal guns that hold citizens hostage in different states. On a much more personal level, the security lapses have resulted in the loss of productive, intelligent and resourceful individuals that would have contributed significantly to United State’s economy. Therefore, it is imperative that bureaucrats and politicians realize that the Virginia Tech massacre was a grave reminder that they should increase their efforts in facilitating public safety.
Fox, James A. Fueling a Contagion of Campus Bloodshed. Chronicle of Higher Education. 54.25. 2008. Print.
Jones, Kathleen W. The Thirty-Third Victim: Representations of Seung Hui Cho in the Aftermath of the “Virginia Tech Massacre. The Journal of the History of Childhood and Youth. 2.1. 2009: 64-82. Print
Roy, Lucinda. No Right to Remain Silent: The Tragedy at Virginia Tech. New York: Harmony Books, 2009. Print
Santos, Jody. Daring to Feel: Violence, the News Media, and Their Emotions. Lanham, Md: Lexington Books, 2009. Print
Weinberg, Eric J. Privacy Issues and the Virginia Tech Massacre. Disaster Resource Guide. 2007. Print.