Cho manifesto highlights challenges for online news

When Seung-Hui Cho sent a multimedia diatribe to NBC while on a two-hour break during his killing-spree at Virginia Tech University last month, it wasn’t the first attempt by a murder to use the media as his personal platform. However, the decisions that NBC and other news organizations had to make about whether, how and when to present Cho’s last thoughts took on a new level of complexity in this age of ubiquitous online media. The web presentation of portions of Cho’s video, photographs and words elicited thoughtful and divergent reactions from journalists, bloggers, scholars and other media professionals.

As the world knows by now, on April 16, Cho sent NBC news a package containing dozens of images, video clips, and pages of text full of angry, delusional ranting. NBC, announced the receipt of Cho’s “manifesto” on Wednesday afternoon, in a blog entry from Nightly News anchor Brian Williams, as well as a scrolling “breaking news” ticker on the show’s website.

That evening, a selection of images, video and text was online, fronted by a banner photo of Cho holding two pistols aloft. The story about the multimedia manifesto was accompanied by several interactive sidebars: a slideshow beginning with a picture of Cho with a pistol to his head; a slide show about the victims, and an interactive gallery that included a timeline and other information. NBC assured viewers that it had withheld the most disturbing material. Before the evening was done, news organizations around the world had some version of the same package on their sites.

Audience reaction was fast, furious, and divided. Many commenters on the Nightly News were furious. “I am totally appalled that NBC News has chosen to broadcast the videos of a psychopath according to his wishes,” one commenter wrote. Others shared the view of another commenter who said, “As a news organization NBC was obligated to present the information to the public….” The next day, NBC, FOX and other broadcasters announced it would cut back the frequency of their broadcasts.

NBC did not respond to OJR’s requests for information about the specific editorial and design considerations driving its online presentation of the Cho manifesto. However, NBC News president Steve Capus issued a statement on the MSNC website and gave several interviews explaining the network’s effort to balance sensitivity to those affected by the tragedy with the imperatives of good journalism. “We believe it provides some answers to the critical question, ‘why did this man carry out these awful murders?'” the statement said, in part.

Even within the network, there were differences of opinion about just how much of Cho’s material to use. NBC dateline anchor Stone Phillips wrote in his blog, “Cho’s words and demeanor provide some insight into his troubled mind, notably his glowing references to the Columbine killers. But his ranting warrants only the most limited airtime, lest we reward him with a platform to spew his hate and a higher place in the pantheon of mass murderers.”

The network’s supporters included independent journalist Kevin Sites, who argued that, “holding back information that is critical to the story, no matter how difficult or disturbing it may be to hear or see, corrupts journalism’s ability to report the truth and the public’s ability to understand it.”

Not Whether to Publish, But When and How

To Gary Dauphin, a writer, consultant and former editor of this issue shouldn’t be whether to “run everything or run nothing. There are far more important questions about how you put things together and how it reflects your organizational values.”

Jonathan Dube, editor of and vice-president of the Online News Association, agrees that it’s about values. “It’s essential that news organizations do not simply post video such as this online just because they can,” he said. Dube says it’s also about making the best use of each medium:

“TV, radio and print don’t allow the audience to avoid the content if they so choose — if you air a video or print a large photo, your audience will see it. The web, on the other hand, enables the news organization to post the video, but behind a warning, so that only those who seek it out will see it. I was surprised that more organizations didn’t opt for more restraint in what they published in print and on air, and instead put the video online behind a warning.”

At Virginia Tech itself, the online staff of the campus newspaper, The Collegiate Times, didn’t spend much time pondering how to handle Cho’s materials. Christopher Ritter, the paper’s online editor, and his staff merely folded mentions of NBC’s receipt and airing of the materials into its running news bulletins, accompanied by a video still of Cho’s image emblazoned with the NBC logo and its “Breaking News” headline. The staff had been covering the tragedy with these time-stamped bulletins since news of the first shootings hit the campus on the morning of the 16th – a style of coverage they’d adopted after a campus shooting at the beginning of the school year.

When it came to Cho’s package, Ritter said,

“The reason we chose to only use one photo is because, obviously, is visited by a lot of the victims’ families, being a university paper, so we obviously should be sensitive to that. We don’t want to overly play what the shooter wanted. Yes it’s news, but those things were created a long time ago, and they really have nothing to do with a lot of the victims. Our news is related to the students and the victims’ families and the victims’ friends. We’re not serving the killer.”

Besides, Ritter added, people who want to look at NBC’s package will go NBC news to get it, not their paper. “There were some people in the newsroom who probably wanted to play it more than we did, but I don’t think there were any arguments about it,” Ritter said.

Good journalism, bad PR?

In an article on its website, NBC said it showed “two minutes of 25 minutes of video, seven of 43 photographs and 37 sentences of 23 pages of written material.” The same article quoted NBC news president Steve Capus telling talk show host Oprah Winfrey, “sometimes good journalism is bad PR.”

Some bloggers argued that NBC shouldn’t have been trying to do traditional journalism at all. Dave Winer provoked heated debate by declaring that NBC should have placed all of Cho’s ravings online.” We should all get a chance to see what’s on those videos,” Winer wrote. “Given enough time the focus will go on their process, much better to just let it all out now, with no editorial judgment.”

Xeni Jardin tracked the debate on the popular blog BoingBoing, and while she says she wouldn’t presume to tell national news organizations how to do their job,” the thing that really sticks with me out of that debate was the argument that it is distasteful and outdated and kind of wrong for news organizations to brand that kind of material, material that is so sensitive, or so graphic. It seems very strange to have the NBC logo burned into every single frame of the video that was released, and every single still image.”

As for whether all of the video and other materials should have been released online, Jardin finds “compelling arguments” for and against. “But I thought it was interesting that so many people expressed concern over the way the materials were released, that it was parsed out in a proprietary way,” with conditions that included the requirement that NBC be credited when the materials were run. “If anything, that kind of logic seems outdated these days.”

Former CNN assignment editor David Mindich, a professor at St. Michael’s College in Colchester, Vermont, acknowledges that this is one situation where standard operating procedures have to be scrutinized for sensitivity. “Typically, news organizations with ‘scoops’ tend to put their logo on broadcast reports.” Mindich said., “I think in hindsight, it certainly would have been better to depart from that tradition.”

A harbinger of things to come?

Whether it was Virginia Tech students blogging and twittering their experiences, the killer’s posthumous media kit, or news consumers flooding message boards with their reactions to the news coverage, there is no question that online and social media were central to the world’s efforts to come to grips with this tragedy. “Journalists are mindful that they can’t be gatekeepers in the media universe without offense,” Mindich said.

For crisis communications expert Richard Levick, this episode is proof that, “The days when there when there is any oligopolistic power in newsgathering are long gone. We’re going to continue to see increases in the amount of access we have to information. I think that’s only gong to make it more difficult for news organizations to decide what they show and don’t show.”

Former radio station owner Bruce Mittman believes that the way audiences used online media to register their reactions to initial coverage of Cho’s package is a bellwether. “I think we’re getting into a very interesting period in broadcast journalism,” he said, “In the past, journalists had more confidence that if they brought something to the public, they’d thought it through, felt it had value, and that it needed to be presented. I think for the first time, you’re seeing – maybe because of all the blogs, and because of the interactive nature of media now, and actually seeing responses that are quite passionate, and plentiful, is reason for pause, for the first time.”

About Kim Pearson

I teach writing for journalism and interactive multimedia at The College of New Jersey. I also blog at Professor Kim's News Notes ( and BlogHer ( for which I serve as a contributing editor. My current interests are in coming up with new models for interactive storytelling, including the possibilities that might derive from employing videogame narrative conventions into news presentation. I have been reading OJR with enthusiasm since its inception, and I look forward to participating more fully in the dialogue here.