Disturbing images are nothing new. In the post 9/11 world we see them increasingly often.
That doesn't mean the discussion of how to handle them has gotten any easier for the news media. The way outlets dealt with the video and photos of Virginia Tech killer Cho Seung-hui and the uproar it created showed just how complicated the issue can be and how elusive simple right or wrong answers can be.
To recap, on Wednesday, NBC News received a package apparently mailed by the killer between his two Monday-morning shooting sprees. News staff, using gloves and masks so as not to taint potential evidence, made copies of the photos, video, and manifesto they received and then turned the contents over to the authorities.
On that evening's "Nightly News," anchor Brian Williams explained to viewers what happened that day, then warned that the network knew it was airing the words of a killer but believed there was something to be gained from airing excerpts of the material.
The reaction was exactly what one would expect with such a charged issue. Some people said they saw NBC's actions as gruesome and exploitative. Others believed that it helped shed light on the mind-set of a killer.
The network surely would have been criticized had it chosen not to air it instead.
But it's important here to consider how thoughtfully a news organization reaches its decision on such a matter. Does the material help explain the story or is it primarily eliciting a reaction? Does it do the bidding of the perpetrator, or does it inform the public? How much can be released and in what way to balance the material's value to the audience versus the wishes of the offending party?
These are questions the news media face increasingly often today as sources become more sophisticated about manipulation. Think of terrorist execution videos, martyr videos, Al Qaeda video releases, even the footage of the jets striking the twin towers. A good argument can be made for the way NBC handled the release of the Cho material, at least initially, as offering important insight into his mind-set. It's hard not to come away from the video with a sense of just how deeply disturbed the young man was. In interviews, several Virginia Tech students, who had the most reason to be upset about the video, seemed to understand its value and why people would want to see it.
The same really can't be said, however, for the way the media handled the material in the time immediately following the NBC release.
That night, and particularly the next day, the news media were flooded with Cho's images and words creating a backlash with some readers and viewers. And though much of the debate centered on the airing of the video and how TV news organizations handled it, the pictures of Cho were arguably just as troubling and abused just as much by other outlets.
On Thursday morning, several newspapers ran huge pictures from the package with Cho brandishing handguns. And on the night of the release, one cable news website ran as its primary image a large picture of Cho pointing a gun directly into the camera – at the reader.
After some protest, a number of news organizations quickly sensed they had stepped over the line and put restrictions on the use of the video. (Even before the public anger, NBC decided to limit the video's usage.)
If the initial airing by NBC News was arguably justifiable, what was wrong with the torrent of coverage that followed? It was used primarily to elicit an emotional response – a response Cho himself wanted to create. The sheer repetition went beyond informing people.
It immortalized him and let him, not the events of the shooting, dominate the news cycle. And it desensitized the audience to an extraordinary and frightening collection of material and ultimately, in some sense, to the event itself.
This won't be the last time news organizations are faced with the issue of what to do with troubling material. The question, as always, is whether media organizations, which often decry feeding frenzies after participating in them, take forward the lessons from this week.
Just rushing something to the audience because it is new or startling isn't enough. There may never be a perfect response, but there should be an explainable one.
• Dante Chinni, a senior associate at the Project for Excellence in Journalism, writes a twice-monthly column on media issues. E-mail him at Dante Chinni.