Obtaining exclusive material related to the nation's biggest news story is a network executive's dream. But when NBC received a package yesterday of video, photos and texts made by gunman Cho Seung-Hui, it also faced serious ethical concerns.
The network, which received the delivery yesterday morning, reported that it had handed the material over to the authorities. But NBC also first copied the packet, which Cho had mailed between the time he killed two people in a dormitory and then gunned down 30 more in classrooms at Virginia Tech.
By 5:55 p.m., after Virginia State Police announced that NBC had received the package, a photo of Cho pointing two handguns at a camera was posted on MSNBC, the network's cable cousin.
The 23-year-old was wearing a black baseball cap backward and commando gear, including a flak jacket, an ammunition vest and gloves with the fingers cut out. The image remained onscreen until the start of the NBC Nightly News at 6:30 p.m.
But outside of that display, analysts gave NBC passing grades for its sensitivity.
"You see sensationalism and excess on television - particularly on cable - every day when it comes to repeated videos," said Tom Rosenstiel, director of the Project for Excellence in Journalism, a Washington-based news media think tank. "But, in the case of the Nightly News with Brian Williams, they were clearly trying to be as sensitive as they could to the issues involved."
Rosenstiel said the challenge NBC faced was: "How do you sift out what is newsworthy versus what is exploitative? On one level, you are playing into the hands of a killer who is from the grave trying to manipulate you."
Anchorman Williams and two analysts in the opening segment showed an awareness of the possibility of playing into the dead gunman's ploy, as well as sensitivity to the feelings of the victims' families.
Indeed, Williams opened the Nightly News not so much by trumpeting NBC's exclusive as by explaining how the network came by the package.
"We now know what the Virginia Tech gunman was doing during that two-hour period between shootings on campus," Williams told viewers. "He was compiling - before going to the post office and mailing via overnight mail - what can only be described as a multimedia manifesto to NBC headquarters, this very building, here in New York."
He went on to say, "We are sensitive to how all this will be seen by those affected, and we know we are, in effect, airing the words of a murderer here tonight."
Lee Thornton, who heads the broadcast journalism program at the University of Maryland, College Park, seconded Rosenstiel's assessment.
"Overall, I think they handled it responsibly," the former CBS News White House correspondent said.
"They made it clear that they first made copies and then turned it over to authorities," the former CBS News White House correspondent said. "They also presented it in a fairly straightforward manner without a lot of interpretation, which was good given the situation."
Rosenstiel also noticed that it seemed as if the NBC News anchorman and correspondents wisely did not overreach for grand analysis.
Such restraint was lacking on MSNBC once the image of Cho appeared on the screen behind anchorman Chris Matthews.
"This is the uniform of a killer," Matthews told viewers in his bombastic style. "This is the get-up for someone who wants to equip themselves for violent acts."
Rosenstiel commented, "In terms of the fine line between informing and exploiting, the red flags appear when they start showing an image over and over, and all it offers is emotion."
Besides pushing emotional buttons, Matthews promoted the exclusive shared by the network and cable channel.
"There will be much more on the contents of Cho's package on Nightly News at 6:30 Eastern - and anything you missed, we're going to have it in spades later [on MSNBC]," Matthews said.