By: Mark Fitzgerald and Greg Mitchell
Through the day Thursday NBC faced a growing backlash for airing parts of the video that mass murderer Cho Seung-Hui sent the network after killing two Virginia Tech students and preparing to slaughter another 30 people.
Newspapers also heard from sometimes-furious readers about their own decisions to publish the jarring images from that video. Thomas Mitchell, editor of the Las Vegas Review-Journal, said he was a little taken aback by a complaint from an eighth-grade teacher that ?the eighth-grade gangbangers were looking at that and saying, ?Cool!??
About 30 to 40 readers complained to The Plain Dealer in Cleveland about the decision to publish on its front page four frames of an armed Cho acting menacingly. About a dozen of those calls came to Editor Doug Clifton.
“If there’s a pattern to (the reaction) it’s principally women who are repulsed by” the images, Clifton said.
Like many papers, the P-D ultimately decided that the images represented the horror of what happened on the Blacksburg campus Monday, Clifton said: “People have said we shouldn’t run them at all, but I think that would be unwise because the reaction among the curious — the appropriately curious — would be, what are you holding back? What are you concealing?”
The P-D went with all four images after a long newsroom debate in which the argument that carrying multiple images of the killer’s poses would blunt the impact of the “iconic” frame in which Cho stands with guns in both outstretched arms.
“In retrospect, if I had to do it all over again, wee probably would have gone with fewer pictures,” Clifton said. “I probably would not have used the photo of him pointing the gun directly at the reader because that is disturbing.”
The two-pistol shot was the most popular, but any and many images from Cho’s homemade video turned up on front pages from The Anniston (Ala.) Star to the Wyoming Eagle-Tribune in Cheyenne.
In fact, it is hard to find a major paper that declined to run a frame from the video.
A popular image was Cho with his arms outstretched with a pistol in each hand. Some used the even more dramatic close-up shot of Cho point a pistol right at the camera. That shot carried the entire front page of the tabloid Philadelphia Daily News.
But was this the right thing to do? NBC came under tremendous criticism from some quarters today and announced that it will cut back on showing the images. The Associated Press quoted NBC ?Today? show host Meredith Vieira as saying some family members of victims canceled plans to appear on the show Thursday because they “were very upset” with the network for airing the pictures.
There are the usual taste considerations, of course, but also warnings that they could inspire copycat attacks.
That was the reaction that Editor Mitchell got from a few Las Vegas Review-Journal readers. In the largest photo right in the center of the front page, Cho is shown aiming a pistol directly at the camera. The R-J front page also includes three smaller frames of the killer with two guns and a hammer.
Mitchell quoted one e-mail he received: ?Shame on the Review-Journal. The media as a whole always displays murderers as heroes, just as they?ve always done. … No wonder the Columbine killers were (Cho?s) heroes.?
The editor said he did not particularly wrestle with the decision to run the strongest image the largest. ?I don?t like gun pictures pointed at me, but that was one that said clearly what this guy?s mental state was,? he said. ?It was very informative and educational. If you want to take away from it any more than that, that?s your problem not mind.?
Few declined a chance to use a dramatic gun shot that the Review-Journal chose.
USA Today was rare in using four head shots of Cho which obscured the guns in a fifth shot. The Richmond Times-dispatch in Virginia used a gun shot though the Roanoke Times, close to the scene, did not.
The Detroit Free Press took a pass — until page 16.
The Chicago Tribune was a rare metro that was satisfied with a head shot from a Cho video, not a gun view. But the rival Chicago Sun-Times spread the image across its tabloid front page. In white reverse type the headline read “FACE OF RAGE.”
The Orange County Register and its sibling quick-read tabloid, the OC Post, took different approaches, with the tab using the outstretched arms image — and broadsheet prominently featuring the arguably more sensational frame showing Cho pointing his gun at the camera.
That provoked a ?relatively small, but thoughtful reaction? from about 15 people by lunchtime, said Editor Ken Brusic.
?For the most part, they say they find the images very disturbing, and I have to agree with them — they are very disturbing,? he said. ?But what?s probably more disturbing is the violence itself.?
Wednesday?s Register front page was given over to photos and profiles of the victims, a display that was continued on an inside page, Brusic said.
?What we?re trying to do in the totality of the coverage is show the extent of this tragedy, both from the side of the victims, and this very disturbed individual,? he said.
The image was intended to stir debate, he said.
Many newspaper sites carried an AP package of the video headlined ?Raw Footage,? but no paper E&P talked with mentioned complaints about the video — only the print images.
For editors, decisions on jarring images are a no-win situation, says the Plain Dealer?s Clifton: ?It’s a terrible dilemma that you?re in because I think there is a genuine and important need to show the photos — and I think there is an important and genuine concern that it, A, glorifies the killer and B, is needlessly provocative. And I understand those points.?