Friday, April 20, 2007

If It Bleeds, It Leads

"If it bleeds, it leads," words we have all become familiar with as mainstream media has continued its decline into sensationalism. But, have they finally gone too far? NBC reportedly agonized over releasing portions of Cho Seung-Hui's video and photo manifesto, sent to them just before his rampage at Virginia Tech that ended with the deaths of 32 people began. NBC justified release of the material claiming that viewers sought to understand why someone would do that and that they had a journalistic responsibility to report that aspect of the story. But did they really?

I think to understand why these types of violent rampages are becoming more prevalent in our society the media only needs to look in the mirror. They bring on expert after expert to blame everything from rap music to video games. Yet, they never acknowledge that they single handedly immortalized the Columbine shooters or Timothy McVeigh, both of which tragedies' anniversaries occurred this month.

Evil exists in this world and the capability of evil exists in all of us. Denying that only exacerbates the problem. One only has to look at the German citizenry in the 30's and 40's as they blindly followed Hitler into genocide or at the individuals responsible for terrorism or these school shootings to understand that.

There is a fine line between the sane act and the insane, but it is not the media's job to determine what causes someone to cross that line. It is up to trained investigators and criminal psychologists, not Katie Couric or Anderson Cooper. We don't need the nightly news glorifying the acts of madmen and giving them the credit and publicity that drives their aggression. We only need the experts to quietly study them and then formulate new ways to identify signs that we can look out for that may help us prevent future heinous acts.

Would Cho have gone on this rampage had the mainstream media not immortalized the Columbine shooters? I think it is clear he would not just from the bits of information being released about the NBC video clips. Even more concerning is the rash of copycat threats being made in schools all over the country these past couple days, proof that the publicity Cho is receiving in the media is driving more troubled kids towards the breaking point.

The media defend the growing sensationalistic reporting by pointing to the growing ratings it draws. Just like public executions used to draw huge crowds of gawkers and rubberneckers bring traffic to a crawl in the hopes of seeing carnage in even the smallest of accidents, the publics’ curiosity with death will never go away. It is up to the media to limit their reporting in ethical ways and always with an eye on the negative effects their actions can have.

The media is not likely to return to the ethical reporting of the past willingly. They have tasted the influence they can have on society and aren't going to voluntarily give up that power. Unfortunately, the next time someone snaps they are now more likely to one-up Cho's act and all the mainstream media will leave us with is more questions about why?