Friday, April 20, 2007

VIRGINIA TECH MASSACRE: New-media culture challenges limits of journalism ethics

By
Joe Garofoli

The Virginia Tech shooting is the first major U.S. news story in which traditional media and new-media technologies became visibly interdependent. Yet how that combination of old and new enabled the world to see the final ramblings of mass murderer Cho Seung-Hui raises an uncomfortable question: When everybody can publish in the world of new media, what will the world see next?

As new-media expert Jeff Jarvis wrote on his BuzzMachine.com blog Thursday, "There is no control point anymore. When anyone and everyone -- witnesses, criminals, victims, commentators, officials and journalists -- can publish and broadcast as events happen, there is no longer any guarantee that news and society itself can be filtered, packaged, edited, sanitized, polished, secured."

NBC News anchor Brian Williams called the photos, videos and text Cho mailed directly to his network a "multimedia manifesto." The network released only heavily edited parts of Cho's submission, enough so it could convey "the mind-set of the troubled gunman," Williams said.

Now, some media analysts are wondering what the next multimedia manifesto will contain. Will somebody upload a live hostage situation?

And given the "let-the-masses-decide" ethos of this new-media landscape, some want NBC to release everything Cho sent.

The questions and concerns about the boundaries of openness are being raised not just by traditional media fuddy-duddies but by leaders of new media, those who often praise the virtues of a "democratized" media world in which anyone can publish his own writing, video or photos.

The Virginia Tech story offered the most vivid example yet of how traditional news sources, like cable news networks, and new-media sources, like the social networking site Facebook, are jointly creating a mosaic of news coverage. Yet the Cho video showed how that marriage of technology could be outpacing ethical standards.

"It is future shock," said Micah Sifry, executive editor of the Personal Democracy Forum, a New York think-tank that explores the intersections of technology and politics. "The technology has developed so fast that the culture hasn't caught up with all of it.

"On one hand, you have the advocates, who want NBC to release all of (Cho's manifesto). On the other, you have people who are saying, 'Wait a minute.' This is a very challenging moment."

As Sifry wrote Thursday on his blog, www.personaldemocracy.com, "The father in me doesn't want my kids finding this on the Web . . . the openness advocate in me agrees that we don't make horrors go away by hiding them. I'm conflicted about this."

"Conflicted is the right word," said Dave Winer, a pioneering blogger and influential figure in new media. He would like to see NBC release all of Cho's material. "Yes, I realize that it's unfortunate right now that this guy gets to control the discussion."

On his blog Scripting.com, Winer wrote Thursday, "We hadn't foreseen this use of the technology because, as utopians, we tend to look for the good stuff. I liked to think I had a balanced view, and could see where bloggers weren't doing good, but I hadn't seriously considered our tools used to further such a bad cause.

"When you see a suicide bomber with a camera strapped to his or her head, you'll know that the bad has caught up with the good."

But Winer and Sifry don't think the answer to these ethical dilemmas is to restrict the freedom of people to publish. "What works best is an open-networked system," Sifry said, "It's the difference between trusting a few people to make decisions for everyone and trusting many people."

Yet after a day of repetitive airings of Cho's images on news outlets, Fox News was among the news outlets that promised to restrict rebroadcasting.

"We believe that 18 hours after they were first broadcast and distributed via the Internet, our news viewers have had the opportunity to see the images and draw their own conclusions about them," said John Moody, Fox News Channel's executive vice president of editorial. "We see no reason to continue assaulting the public with these disturbing and demented images. We reserve the right to resume airing them as news warrants."

By Thursday, the other networks also decided to limit or eliminate showing Cho's video.

Traditional outlets acknowledge that current technology enables offensive material to circulate, no matter what they do.

"In the end, it's going to get out there," said Jay Wallace, executive producer for news at Fox News Channel. "Even if every newspaper and cable news channel doesn't put it out there, somebody will."

"The lesson for this week is that the news is everywhere. The news is on Facebook," said Jennifer Sizemore, editor in chief of MSNBC.com. Like other news outlets, MSNBC turned to social networking sites like MySpace and Facebook to find students to interview about the Virginia Tech slayings.

"I don't view them as the competition," said Sizemore. "I see them as enlarging the conversation."

That broadened conversation has contributed to ratings spikes. The 1.8 million people who watched Fox on Monday, the day the shooting occurred, represented a 115 percent jump in ratings over Fox's average for the first part of this year. CNN's 1.4 million viewers were a ratings jump of 186 percent for that same period. MSNBC.com had 108.8 million page views Tuesday, a record for the site.

Both new and traditional media leaders know that many people following the story on TV were also checking it online, monitoring social networking sites and other online news outlets for the latest developments.

That partially explains why cable news networks broadcast Virginia Tech coverage nearly exclusively through Wednesday. They didn't want to risk losing viewers to another outlet.

"In those early hours, it is a feeding frenzy," said Fox's Wallace. "We know that people are flipping around everywhere for news."

Jarvis said the future of cable news -- in which viewers are likely to watch television on their computers -- could be different. With bandwidth cheaper and broader, perhaps there will be a CNN channel devoted exclusively to saturation coverage of the big story of the day. If viewers prefer to hear news from Iraq or Washington or China, they could flip over to the regular CNN channel.

When Jarvis wanted to check out the latest developments from Virginia Tech this week, he said he went home after a day of reading online and did something that might sound surprising, given his new-media identity: "I flipped on the television. Part of it was habit. But there are some things that the big outlets still do well."

E-mail Joe Garofoli at jgarofoli@sfchronicle.com.

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