The Image as News – Virginia Tech Media Coverage

April 23, 2007

In the aftermath of the massacre at Virginia Tech the media has a duty to think carefully about how it presents the on-going news story in ways that fulfils its role of informing citizens, but also minimizes harm and trauma. The stories of the 15 injured survivors are now featuring in the news, later will come the coronial inquests, official inquiries and other newsworthy stories in the aftermath of the massacre. And then on 16th April each year for many years to come news organizations, particularly in the US, will revive the story of the Virginia Tech massacre and this coverage will re-traumatize its citizens, particularly those most closely affected by the event. All of these stories will need to be told, the news media has a duty to inform the public about the aftermath of the massacre. However, the images the news media choose to publish in their coverage of the aftermath will have a substantial impact on how well the media manages that fine line in trauma reportage between fulfilling its duty to inform while minimising the harm to the public.
In the aftermath of the Port Arthur massacre in Tasmania in 1996 (when gunman Martin Bryant killed 35 people at a historic former penal settlement on the Tasman Peninsula) the media coverage that most divided the Tasmanian community has been the continued use of what has become the iconic image of the massacre – a photo of a blonde-haired, wild-eyed young man staring out at the world. The continual replication of this image has created an ongoing hostility towards the Tasmanian media. Those affected by its replication claim that it re-traumatizes them while providing nothing new to the public discourse.
Visual images are a powerful medium. Photographs, as Peter Stepan says in the forward to Photos that Changed the World (Prestel, 2006), photographic images can “shake us, disquiet, and distress us so deeply that they are etched in our memories forever.” In disasters, conflicts and significant human tragedies one image often becomes the defining image through its mass media coverage. Nick Ut’s 1972 photo of Kim Phuc, naked and burned by napalm, running down a road surrounded by other terrified children is for many the iconic image of the Vietnam war, while John Paul Filo’s photo of Mary Ann Vecchio’s kneeling lament before the body of a dead student at Kent Sate University on 4 May 1970, is the iconic image of that tragedy.

In the case of the Port Arthur massacre the iconic image of Australia’s worst mass murder is not a photo from the massacre scene, but rather a personal family snapshot of Bryant which was initially published in a shocking full-page layout on the front-page of Hobart’s daily newspaper, the Murdoch owned Mercury, with the headline: “This Is the Man.” (There have been claims about the digital manipulation of the eyes in this photo to give Bryant a more demonic appearance, but that is the topic of another ethical discussion.) In the 11 years since the Port Arthur massacre this image has become the stock image used in news stories about Bryant in the Australian media, particularly in the local Mercury where stories appear not infrequently ranging from unconfirmed reports that he has self-harmed; that he is living like a “zombie”; or that he is gaining extra privileges in prison. Each time this photo is published many in the Tasmanian community, and particularly those who were most closely affected by the tragedy, complain about the harm and distress its publication causes in forcing them to relive the horror.
Aside from the ethical debate about the issue as to whether NBC (and later other news networks) should have broadcast the video produced by the Virginia Tech murderer, Cho Seung-Hui, there is also the question of the replication of the image which is already becoming the defining image of the massacre,

Cho Seung-Hui’s portrait of himself dressed in military clothing, brandishing the weapons he used to kill 32 people while he stares menacingly into the camera—and forever at the viewer.

As in the case of Martin Bryant (while Bryant did not personally hand over his framed family photo to the media, the image reflects the way he wished to be seen by others) the media is again allowing the perpetrator of a heinous crime to choose how they are to be seen by the world. By publishing, and republishing and rebroadcasting, Cho Seung-Hui’s portrait of himself, the media is allowing him, from the grave, to choose the images which will forever define the Virginia Tech massacre. The editor of the San Francisco Chronicle, Phil Bronstein, was one editor who was mindful of the power of Cho’s image when deciding what pictures to publish. Bronstein agreed that the most shocking image was of Cho, dressed in the “Rambo-style” outfit and pointing his guns at the viewer seemed “a step too far”: “To me, that is so manufactured. It’s real in the sense that he used the guns in a horrible way, but those particular images of him with guns are such manipulation… they reflected the image that he wanted to have live on, so we made the decision consciously not to reflect that image”. The other image most widely broadcast and published of Cho Seung-Hui is an undated mugshot from the Virginia police (and therefore not an image of Cho’s choosing) which at first appears less confronting in that it depicts nothing more than the rather sulky face of a young man, but in other ways is, like Bryant’s image, this innocuous image is even more confronting for its disconcerting normalcy.
To the families of the victims of Port Arthur and the wider Tasmanian community, the replication of the Bryant image has continued to compound the trauma of that event. While Cho Seung-Hui will forever stare menacingly out at those who view his image, at what stage will its news values cease to override the risk of harm? News editors will need to think carefully, like Phil Bronstein, before they allow this image to become the “stock” vision of the Virginia Tech massacre.
It has been heartening to see the response of the Virginian newspaper the Roanoke Times to the massacre. In an unprecedented decision the team of editors, headed by Managing Editor Carole Tarrant, chose to publish five of NBC’s images of Cho Seung-Hui on pages two and three and ran a memorial picture on the front page

At the same time Tarrant acknowledged the importance of the NBC photos, arguing that they gave readers a glimpse of the killer’s mind-set and that the pictures helped to tell the story, but that the community was “still too raw to put a picture of a gun-toting Cho on the front.” Roanoke Times columnist Shanna Flowers says, “geography and proximity are other important ingredients in a decision like this one.”
Bob Steele from the Poynter Institute in Florida acknowledges that in such situations the media cannot prevent all harm, and that it is a balancing act between truth and harm. But the ethical breach comes when the news media continues to replay the footage, or republish the still images, when the news imperative to inform is no longer valid. When the image is being published or broadcast to attract an audience, to drive ratings, there is a clear ethical breach. The impact of visual images is immediate and undoable. Unlike the written word, visual images often rob the individual of the right to choose. We have a choice as to whether we read a news account of a story. However, visual images, particularly if they are displayed on the front page of newspapers, on billboards, or used unannounced in news broadcast, are consumed before the viewer has been given the opportunity to make a choice, and for many this lack of choice compounds their sense of affront and further reduces their respect for the news media.
Scott North, reporter and assistant city editor for the Herald (Everett, Wash) in his advice to journalists covering the aftermath of the massacre, wrote in his posting on the DART Centre for Journalism and Trauma web site.

In the race to get it first, don’t forget the long view. It often helps to think less about gathering fact and more about creating relationships. Some of the best stories won’t be told for days, weeks, months or, in some cases, years.
“People in grief have long memories. You will want to be able to return to these people when they are ready to tell you what they’ve learned, not just what they know. The golden rule can’t hurt you here. Approach people the way you’d want to be approached. Give them the respect and space you’d expect in the same situation.

In advising news directors, picture editors, news editors and sub-editors who are making choices about republishing or rebroadcasting the images of Cho Seung-Hui, I would advise them to not forget the long view, to think about building relationships with their audience, and to be proactive in assisting the community to heal in the aftermath by acknowledging the positive stories to come out of the tragedy. I would also advise gatekeepers to be mindful of the impact of visual imagery and to make the choice to republish judiciously.
The media’s coverage of the Port Arthur massacre provides several important lessons. In 2006 the University of Tasmania, in conjunction with DART International and the Australian Press Council, held a public seminar in Hobart on the media coverage of Port Arthur. The audience hostility towards the media, ten years on, was at times palpable and the overwhelming message from the public members to the media representatives and media educators present was—report the positive stories, stop re-traumatizing us by glorifying Bryant by gratuitously publishing his photo. There is a lesson here for those reporting on the aftermath of Cho Seung-Hui’s murderous actions.
In Tasmania, April is an autumnal time of still, clear crisp days—in Virginia it is a time of verdant spring. In both corners of the world April is now defined for many as a month of sad reflection. It is beholden on those who uphold the ideals of the fourth estate in these communities to reflect the events which have marked the lives of their people with a sensitivity and dignity which fosters healing and provides a way forward.