Blacksburg Massacre – the techno-legal time gap and new media

April 21, 2007

In an interesting article by Joe Garofoli at SFGate we are beginning to see a discussion about the many ethical and lego-technical dilemmas thrown up by the way that NBC chose to use the Cho Seung-Hui suicide video.
The basic question is should the news media use everything it can get – such as the “eyewitness” cameraphone footage and the Cho tape, just because it can? There are also issues of verification, authority and authenticity around this. Not to mention the traditional ethical issues, such as grief intrusion, the coverage of violent crimes and suicide and the rights of victims.
I have written (see link to my books below) about what I call the ethico-legal paradox (that there is a contradiction sometimes between the law and ethics in media decision-making) and the techno-legal time gap (that there is a disconnect between what the technology can be used for and any form of legitimate regulatory regime to govern its use).
We see both of these issues being played out in the raging debate about the use of the Cho video in NBC (and other) newscasts and on the web.
Garofoli wrote that in the Blacksburg situation we see the visible interdependence between old and new media for the first time. Well not quite. I have written and lectured on this over the past year to my colleagues and students. I call this phenomenon “Journalism in the Age of YouTube”.
It first came to my notice in July 2005 during the London bombings. The BBC and other media were running loads of amateur footage shot on cameraphones and many stills of the underground explosions. But the real tragedy of this was the shooting of Brazilian tourist, Jean Charles de Menezes by the police a couple of days later. Eyewitnesses told the BBC that they had seen “wires” poking out of his jacket when police tackled him to the ground and shot him between five and seven times in the head. The news that Mr de Menezes was a “terrorist” led the frontpage news the next day. It took the British police more than 24 hours to correct the wrong information from eyewitnesses. This is the real danger in this unmediated and uncorroborated fast-media world.
The second time I noticed this, and what sparked my interest even more was inNovember 2006 when a student at UC-Berkeley was tazered by over-zealous security guards. With in hours footage shot by eyewitness cameraphone was posted on YouTube and within 48 hours it was a big international story. I saw it for the first time on a commercial network bulletin in Perth, Australia.
What was interesting about this event was that it set up a referential feedback loop between YouTube and the mass media. YouTube hosted the phone footage, then it was picked up by the campus student press, then by local (San Francisco) news organisations, then it made it onto CNN and Fox and went global. But almost immediately, YouTubers were cross-posting the Fox and CNN clips back into their networks. When I last checked on 21 April 2007 there had been over one million hits on one version of the phone video, but there are several others that have similar hit rates.
I agree that there is a growing interconnection between traditional media and the digital natives, such as YouTubers. My interest in pursuing this is to know how far it’s going and where it might lead.
I am currently writing a book about this and would love to hear from EM readers about their own experiences, thoughts and incidents. If you come across more writing on this, pls let me know about it.
Here’s another thoughtful news report that really nails some of the ethical issues. The AP television writer, David Bauder, had this to say, and it’s a comment I agree with:

The pictures alone _ 11 showed a gun pointed at a camera lens _ were repulsive. Many who saw them viewed it as a second attack, an invitation to copycats and a fulfillment of Cho’s demented wish for attention.

There’s also some good coverage over at the UK Press Gazette blog.
Meanwhile, this is what the good burgher’s of Blacksburg have had to put up with. Would you like to have dinner with this sh!t blaring away from the widescreen TV over the bar?


Blacksburg Massacre footage – should it be shown

April 20, 2007

On Thursday night I saw some of the footage of Cho Seung-Hui’s gruesome death video. It had been aired by the NBC network in the USA and, of course, picked up and screened right around the world.
There was not any type of warning on the network news I saw and it was right in the middle of so-called “family viewing” time. Was it necessary to air so much of the tape in which Cho makes it clear he’s going to do something violent, reads his crazed prose and poetry and poses with the handguns he’d recently purchased.
The language of the reporter covering the story was just as violent, it’s what I have begun to call “forensic pornography”. It’s the type of stuff you see in the fictional cop shows, particularly those that feature sexual violence against women as the “crime” that’s being “solved”.
This is exactly how NBC and its affiliated website , MSNBC is covering the story. Here’s an image from their cover piece on the tape and the massacre, a profile of the killer that glorifies what he did in a very sick way.
There are nine clips and a “slide show” of still images from the video uploaded onto the MSNBC website.
This is making Cho out to be some kind of psychopathic hero.
Where’s the empathy for the victims, families and friends. Do they need to have this grisly reminder and “trophy” gloat tape pushed in their faces?
What were the ethical thinking and decision-making principles in the NBC newsroom that led them to think it was a good idea to use this tape in this way?
Perhaps some of the comments posted on the MSNBC viewer/reader pages are an indication.
The overwhelming line is that banning hand guns won’t work, the old “guns don’t kill people, people do” line and some weird religious shit about the fact that “God” won’t tolerate this -“the end is nigh” doomsdayism. So perhaps the audience isn’t very capable of discerning judgment and NBC is pandering to some awful voyeuristic tendencies in its key market demographic.

Interestingly NBC has defended its decision in a statement sent to the Poynter Institute, which is also hosting an extended discussion of this topic: to show or not show the footage. One TV network, affiliated to NBC decided to not show the footage or stills from the tape, or to play the audio.
In my view there are ways to deal with this story that do not involve glorifying a mass murderer who was obviously psychotic. I’m very worried that there could be possible copycat killers out there who are getting off on this material and could become just as unstable.
I also think that in terms of grief reporting that it is just adding to the pain of the survivors, friends and families of the deceased.