Television and Virginia Tech


I’m just back from the US, having arrived the night NBC began to broadcast the videotaped messages of Seung-Hui Cho, who had just shot 32 students and faculty at Virginia Tech. I stayed up watching CNN’s coverage. It was unbelievable viewing, but not as CNN intended.

In its rolling coverage, CNN broadcast large chunks of the video, in which Cho claimed to have been bullied, compared himself to Christ, and attacked what he deemed the hedonistic, pampered lifestyles of his fellow students. Parts of the video are still available from a link on the story’s slideshow on NBC’s website. Next, CNN would show a small segment and allow ‘experts’ to analyse Cho’s words and gestures. Then another segment would be shown, and more speculation. CNN also tantalised the viewer with promises of ‘more footage tomorrow’.

At some point in the next 24 hours, the story changed. Families of those killed by Cho demanded the videos be taken off air. News broadcasters, it seemed, were fulfilling Cho’s wish by spreading THE KILLER’S WORDS FROM BEYOND THE GRAVE (in the words of many news sources that day). Suddenly CNN’s breaking story was: MEDIA MISTAKE. Commentators and experts now began speculating about how NBC, CNN and others could be so callous. And these debates happened on NBC and CNN, creating the spectacle of journalists reporting on themselves.

A collision had happened between news values – the compulsion to broadcast anything live, immediate, and shocking – and the values of American society. The network TV studio became the crucible for a public debate about taste, decency, and responsibility. This media event, in which the expected media coverage was incorporated into the protagonist’s actions, enabled US society to have a family gathering. Here, through television, American values could be re-asserted, 'evil' could be given a name and face, and public mourning could proceed. Network TV was both problem and solution, but how will such a story play out next time? And how far will the genre of suicide martyrdom video spread?