To Air or Not to Air Cho?

As this tragic week for college students comes to a close, I have been pondering one large question over and over again: Should NBC have aired the footage of Cho that he mailed to them after killing two students and before massacring 30 more?

I am a journalism student at a large school of communications, and issues like this one are highly debated in our classrooms. We are constantly given situations in class that a news director or journalist might run into and asked to figure them out ethically. I understand that NBC receiving this footage was a ratings jackpot and it would be hard to keep it contained…But I have come to the conclusion that NBC betrayed fundamental journalistic principles.

Was it wrong for NBC to air Cho Seung Hui’s Video?

According to the Society of Professional Journalists’ Code of Ethics, one major duty of a journalist is to “Minimize Harm.” The SPJ states that, “ethical journalists treat sources, subjects and colleagues as human beings deserving of respect.” I highly doubt that airing Cho praising the Columbine killers is minimizing harm. It only takes one more disturbed student to see that and gain inspiration from the videos.

Another point in the code of ethics is even more relative to the VTech situation:

“A Journalist should: Show compassion for those who may be affected adversely by news coverage. Use special sensitivity when dealing with children and inexperienced sources or subjects. Be sensitive when seeking or using interviews or photographs of those affected by tragedy or grief.”

I personally feel that NBC did the opposite in this case by airing the Cho footage and no sensitivity was shown to the families. Apparently, the families of the victims agree with me. On Thursday morning, they were scheduled to appear on the Today show with Matt Lauer, but backed out after the footage was aired the previous night.

Coming to this conclusion was not easy for me, as I carefully thought through other journalistic reasons for NBC’s decision, but no matter what, nothing can outweigh the fact that they did not minimize harm and were insensitive to the families of this terrible tragedy. My heart goes out to the families of the victims and am sickened that their pain had to be magnified because of the choices NBC made.

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