Picture this: You’re the managing editor of a newspaper. Around 6:30 p.m. Wednesday, you receive pictures of Cho Seung-Hui, the gunman who killed 32 people and then himself on the Virginia Tech campus Monday. Cho holds pistols in some of the pictures and points a gun to his head in another.
The pictures come from a video Cho mailed to NBC between murders on the campus. The video gives vent to the mind of a mass killer most of America is only beginning to understand. A full two days since the worst mass shooting in U.S. history, few pictures of Cho have yet surfaced.
The decision is this: Do you run the pictures on the front page of your newspaper? Many of your readers are eager to know more about the young man behind the atrocity, eager for something to help them make sense of a senseless tragedy. But the images of a snarling Cho, clad in a military-style vest with pistols drawn, are sure to upset some readers, especially the families of the victims and those close to them.
By the way, you’ve only got a few minutes to decide: Your deadline is looming.
A number of papers across the country decided to use those images on their front pages, and many of them were hit with a backlash of complaints from readers.
At the Daily Press in Hampton Roads, Va., news editor Brad Stertz said his paper decided to run the images large across the front page. There are four pictures: A page-width shot of Cho with pistols drawn, and three smaller images of Cho, one with a hammer, one with a pistol pointed at the camera and one with a pistol pointed at his own head.
Stertz said the paper ran the images in the interest of giving readers complete coverage.
“It came out right on our deadline,” Stertz said. “There hadn’t been a real complete picture that had come forward on the killer. The thought was, ‘This information and these images would provide a lot more context to what happened.’ With that as a basis, we decided to show it, as shocking as some of the information was and the pictures were.”
The decision, Stertz said, was not well-received by many readers.
“There was a steady outpouring of people who thought it was a bad idea,” he said. “We’ve been asking people to look in context of what we’ve done, because we’ve had a lot of stories about the victims and their families and other survivors. And we’re going to continue to have more of that. It’s not as though we’re glorifying this guy. We’re just trying to complete the picture of what was out there.”
Stertz said the Daily Press will be running a story about readers' responses to the images. But he said his paper will still try to tell the story of what happened at Virginia Tech as completely as possible.
"If we had pictures of this guy shooting people or stalking the campus out in public, I’m sure we would have run those," he sad.
Kelly McBride, a media ethicist at the Poynter Institute, said many newspapers around the country had compelling reasons to make a similar choice.
“There’s an inherent tension between our journalistic obligation to give the audience as much information as we can about something that the audience is very interested in and then our obligation to minimize the harm we might cause,” McBride said.
“There’s no doubt that there’s harm caused to the families of the victims and to other people who might be experiencing grief and sorrow as a result of the shooting. But as journalists, we are in the business of telling people what we know, giving people information and not holding it back.”
Carole Tarrant, managing editor at the Roanoke Times, said she thinks the images of Cho have a place in the larger story of the tragedy at Virginia Tech. But her paper decided against running the images on its front page. The paper is located in Roanoke, Va., about 35 miles from Blacksburg and the Virginia Tech campus.
After seeing the images on NBC, Tarrant conferred briefly with the presentation editor on whether to use them.
“There wasn’t much discussion," she said. "We both just said ‘no.'"
Although Tarrant recognized the emotional power of the pictures of Cho and thought NBC was right to air them, she said her newspaper's connection to Blacksburg made printing the images on the first page a non-option. The Times sells newspapers in Blacksburg, Tarrant said, and Times editors couldn't face the thought of residents of that town walking past newspaper boxes and seeing Cho with his guns pointed at them.