National Rifle Association – shoot [the polar bear] first, ask no questions

July 10, 2007

I’ve followed the US National Rifle Association’s antics since the Virginia Tech shootings in April 2007. I couldn’t resit alerting Martini lovers to Martha Rosenberg‘s column today. She’s very clever in her critique of the NRA’s attempts to get around American gun laws:

Besides being armed to return a library book, the NRA wants the right to bring weapons on public parks and school yards, often in defiance of home rule laws.

And speaking of bravery, the NRA has also found time since the Cho shootings to help Safari Club International (SCI), the group former President George H.W. Bush, former Vice President Dan Quayle and Retired Gen. Norman Schwarzkopf Jr. belonged to when they were outed hunting in Africa and asking the Botswana government to keep trophy lion hunts available.

In June it helped SCI defeat an amendment to the Marine Mammal Protection Act in the House of Representatives that would have banned the import of sport-hunted polar bear trophies from Canada.

Who kills polar bears for fun?

Eight hundred Americans imported polar bear trophies from guided hunts in Arctic Canada since 1997! And SCI offers a “Bears of the World” award, a kind of National Geographic for the bloodthirsty, in which hunters have to kill four of the world’s eight bear species which include imperiled polar bears.

The NRA also worked to defeat wolf protection laws and spay and neuter legislation for dogs.

No, Seung-Hui Cho’s bullets have not stopped the NRA’s fast track agenda–or the politicians in its back pocket: the ultimate concealed weapon.

NRA hiding behind a conservative smokescreen

April 27, 2007

NRA-ILA :: In The News

I’ve been keeping an eye on the National Rifle Association’s website in an attempt to find some argument from them in the wake of the Virginia Tech killings a week ago. So far nothing. I’ve mentioned this before and you can trackback to see the history of this post.
This evening I found this (link above) and a couple of others like it on the NRA “news” website. Basically an aggregation of the pro-gun defences and a series of attacks on everyone except the gun-owners.

It doesn’t cut it. The NRA has not itself put out any kind of meaningful statement. And the one they did post, essentially saying “no comment” until all the “facts” are known about VT has been taken down.

Instead they’re letting the right-wing columnists and bloggers do their dirty work. If I had a gun, I’d…
Well, in the words of the Barenaked Ladies, “there’d be no tomorrow”.

I wonder if those bright sparks over at “shoot-em up central” have any idea how ironic and stupid this kind of promotion actually looks now.

Here’s one of the NRA’s “happy snap” images of what a well-armed college kid might want to carry to their next biology class.

Social Networks making news

April 25, 2007

Press Gazette: How should journalists use social media material?

It’s interesting this discussion is starting now. I told my students in a lecture yesterday that there’s going to be more of this – using MySpace, Facebook, etc as news sources. Reporters are now routinely checking MySpace pages for personal information about people who are in the news.
I think we should all be careful about what kind of trails we leave in cyberspace, nothing is really private anymore.
Martin Stabe’s blog (above) gives more details on a recent British case and of course it has become a staple of the Virginia Tech coverage.

Meanwhile, MySpace is also launching a news aggregation service. Of course its links with the Murdoch empire – MySpace is owned by Fox Interactive – will mean it is never short of a good story, particularly if it favours Mr Murdoch’s viewpoints. Is this a sneaky way of turning young Americans into Republicans, and the rest of the world is just collateral damage?

NRA lost voice?

April 24, 2007

NRA news website
The National Rifle Association has still not broken its silence on the Blacksburg killings. But perhaps we can distill something about what it might be saying from these media releases and commentary from “gun-owners”
Here’s the Gun-Owners of America Executive Director, the well-monikered Larry Pratt:

“The latest school shooting demands an immediate end to the gun-free zone law which leaves the nation’s schools at the mercy of madmen. It is irresponsibly dangerous to tell citizens that they may not have guns at schools. The Virginia Tech shooting shows that killers have no concern about a gun ban when murder is in their hearts.”

Pratt’s comments were picked up by Ed Isler who blogs at The Conservative Voice.
I can only assume that the NRA is happy to let these politically aligned individuals speak on their behalf.

Let’s explore this “guns at school” argument. Pratt cites and Isler repeats a story about either the Application School of Law (Pratt) or the Appalachian School of Law (Isler) where a “madman” was stopped by students who fetched their own guns from cars and subdued the suspect.
We can put this scenario to the test and we end up with…32 dead.
Person A goes into a dorm and shoots two people. Person B, hearing the gunshots, pulls out their concealed weapon and runs in the direction of the gunfire. B sees A running down the stairs and cracks off a couple of shots, but misses. Persons C & D, hearing these retorts, grab their own pistols and run in search of the action.
A runs outside, pursued by B. They crouch in defensive positions and open fire on each other. C comes around the corner and can see B firing at A. C opens up at B, thinking that B is the shooter. D comes round the other side and can see A firing at B. D opens up at A. We now have four guns in operation with confusing cross-fire.
E, F, G (you can add as many more as you like because in this upside down world if you don’t carry a gun you’re in real danger from those who do). Pretty soon you’ve got a wild west “OK corral” type situation going on. A friend of mine likened it to a bar brawl where, once the first punch is thrown everyone kicks in and no one can figure out who started it or where “fault” might lie.
In the emotional and adrenalin fueled atmosphere of a campus gun battle who knows where it might end. No one apart from A and B know what went down in the first instance and they’re too busy firing back (or more likely already dead). Any newcomers into the scene are likely to shoot first and ask questions later, if they survive.
This way real madness lies, but not according to the distorted logic of the gun lobby. These are the last people in the world who should be allowed to have guns.

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.

Kuwait Times carries story on Blacksburg video backlash

April 22, 2007

Cho pics spark debate, backlash on TV, print » Kuwait Times Website

Well, this is interesting, in a nation that has no real free press and where women wear the burqa, the “Cho” video is getting some news time. OK, so it’s only agency copy, but it’s a start.

NRA silence still deafening

April 21, 2007

I have been keeping an eye on the National Rifle Association’s reaction to the Blacksburg shootings. Over the past few days I’ve been regularly visiting the NRA website expecting that the organisation that claims to speak for America’s gun-owners would have some measured response to the murder of 32 people by a deranged shooter with several powerful handguns and a sh!tload of ammo.
Here’s the statement that they first posted four days ago.

The National Rifle Association joins the entire country in expressing our deepest condolences to the families of Virginia Tech and everyone else affected by this horrible tragedy.

Our thoughts and prayers are with the families.

We will not have further comment until all the facts are known.

Excuse me, but we know the facts. A mentally-ill young man armed with legally purchased weapons killed 32 people and then shot himself. What have the powerful representative’s of America’s gun-owning public got to say about this. It seems, to use an Antipodean colloquialism “Bugger All!”
Hiding behind “until all the facts are known” is cowardice in the extreme. As of today the NRA’s ridiculous non-statement has not been updated in any way.
These bloodthirsty nutters should shut themselves down and apologise to the world for their despicable silence.

Guns don’t kill people, gun-owners do!

My challenge to NRA President Sandra S. Froman is for her to use her President’s Column to respond to this incident in the measured tones she’s so apparently fond of. This is a small grab from what’s live on Froman’s column at the NRA site as of today (Saturday 21 April 2007):

The challenge is getting the message out. The mainstream media doesn’t give us a fair shake, and it costs a great deal of money to go on television or radio. Every dollar we spend on those media outlets is one less dollar available for our members’ shooting, hunting and gun safety programs. NRA has always been able to do a lot with a little and wise use of our resources is always part of the equation.

How can she say that the mainstream media isn’t interested in the NRA’s views, what crap. The whole world wants to know what you think about this Sandra. Hell, you can come here and have a whole page to yourself, uncensored. For the sake of the victims, say something.
And I really like the priorities expressed here:
shooting, hunting and gun safety
Nice one Prez! Not!!

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.

NRA still silent

April 18, 2007

The National Rifle Association has still not updated its response to the Virginia Tech massacre.