Last week's horrific events at Virginia Tech leave behind images we will never forget. The massacre of 32 people by Cho Seung-Hui was a tragedy that still doesn't seem possible. The video containing the diatribe he sent to NBC was too bizarre to have imagined, yet its contents were so predictably insane.
Tragedies, scandals and political surprises take on a new life in this media-rich world, and the public is an essential participant, heard live and unfiltered— a fact that is fairly obvious but whose ramifications are not.
In 2007, the viewer/citizen reporter/cellphone photographer is working in the same real time as the perpetrators and the victims. So TV news organizations in an all-live world require an added measure of judgment, transparency and accountability.
NBC Nightly News should have immediately and fully explained its decision to air snippets of Cho's video and his rambling discourse, on the air and on its Web sites. It should have noted, from the start, that it would not repeat the footage often. It forgot that, for viewers, this event created a sorrow that morphed into outrage. Even if the reasons for airing the Cho material were journalistically solid, viewers needed to hear that explanation.
By waiting until the next morning to explain, NBC was put on the defensive. That's because there are millions online, thousands who blog and and more thousands who phone in to radio shows fronted by blowhards whose job it is to exploit instant opinion.
So when a politician is politically incorrect, when a radio-show host utters something vile, or when a news organization makes a decision the public dislikes, the offenders will hear about it within minutes. A week ealier, CBS, NBC and Don Imus did not quickly or fully explain themselves and never got ahead of the shrillest voices who were given unrelenting access on the Net and the news channels.
No news or media organization should cave to the loudest voices. Tough calls will always elicit criticism. But Webcitizens demand immediate information—about the event and the process. It's not that everybody's a journalist these days. It's that now everybody is a critic—with an audience.
News organizations hurt themselves by failing to separate compelling news from the merely compelling image. Competing with the Web and 24-hour news channels, they are obviously tempted to exploit the tragedy for ratings. But the more a story is hyped with movie-trailer–like language and delivery, the more susceptible news organizations are to criticism.
The shooter's footage was clearly news, and we agree NBC should have aired it. But the fact NBC touted and teased it on MSNBC for about 90 minutes before the NBC Nightly News merely promoted the posturing of a pathetic lunatic. So NBC wins no style points. In the world of instant news and analysis, the court of opinion is always in session.