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Compelling News, Or Just Compelling

Should they or shouldn't they. The volume on that question was turned up Thursday as radio talk show hosts  bloggers and media players began to debate the cost-benefit analysis of NBC's, followed by virtually every other news organization on the planet's, airing of parts of the videotape from the Virginia Tech shooter.

After being praised by law enforcement officials for immediately handing over the material it received from the alleged killer, NBC was criticized by them for airing parts of a tape that some officials said provided little in the way of news and lots in the way of pain to the families.

Then there was the issue of whether airing what the killer obvoiusly wanted the media to air could prompt copycats to seek their own bloody 15 minutes of fame.

As someone pointed out on a talk radio show, networks routinely refuse to air video of streakers, arguing they don't want to encourage copycats. Clearly there is a far greater interest in not encouraing copycat shooters, but the news value of the material is also potentially much greater. Whether this material was of compelling news value, rather than just compelling eyeball-grabbing value, is the key.

Should NBC have simply reported that there were tapes, that they were rambling and profanity-laced and were obviously the product of a mentally ill person seeking attention, and left it at that. How much news value was there in showing it ?

It is not an easy call, but I hope the deciding factor was not the ratings buzz or that fact that NBC had it exclusively, though both are powerful motivators in the commercial news business.

MSNBC was rather breathless in its promotion of the material, which NBC held until its evening newscast. If the news was vital, why did NBC hold it? Or was it just vital to getting as many eyeballs to the evening newscast as possible. If it was discretionary, perhaps the better part of discretion would have been simply to report its existence, and characterize it, without showing it..

It isn't an easy call, obviously. The New York Times and Washington Post published the Unibomber's rambling manifesto, but that was in hopes of preventing further bloodshed and I'm not sure that was the right call, though I would probably make the same one. This guy was already dead, though, so there was no compelling public interest driving the decision, or at least I'm not sure what it is.

Did it help us to better identify another killer in our midst? Probably not, since the guy on the tape was not the face he showed the world.

Guys who publicly brandish guns and talk about volence are not hard to identify as dangerous.

NBC responded Thursday to the growing criticism with the following after criticism began to mount:

"Upon receiving the materials from Cho Seung-Hui, NBC News took careful consideration in determining how the information should be distributed.  We did not rush the material onto air, but instead consulted with local authorities, who have since publicly acknowledged our appropriate handling of the matter.  Beginning this morning, we have limited our usage of the video across NBC News, including MSNBC, to no more than 10 percent of our airtime. 

"Our Standards and Policies chief reviewed all material before it was released. One of our most experienced correspondents, Pete Williams handled the reporting.

"We believe it provides some answers to the critical question, "why did this man carry out these awful murders?"  The decision to run this video was reached by virtually every news organization in the world, as evidenced by coverage on television, on websites and in newspapers.  We have covered this story – and our unique role in it – with extreme sensitivity, underscored by our devoted efforts to remember and honor the victims and heroes of this tragic incident.  We are committed to nothing less."

By John Eggerton