America Desensitized, New Media has a Responsibility

First let me state that this post is about the media’s coverage of the Virginia Tech tragedy. But first, I must rant: I’m disgusted by some of the irresponsibility I’m seeing in this whole “new media” thing. By new media I mean websites, video logs, blogs, podcasts etc. By no means am I pointing the finger at all new media channels out there, but there is a minority who just can’t exercise responsibility.

As traditional journalism struggles to find itself, to find it’s place in the world, to redefine itself, and find new ways to distribute, new media channels are sprouting up out of the dung. Some have blossomed into respectable sources of news, mostly niche news. Whether it’s a podcast coming out of a university once a month about astrophysics breakthroughs, a video blog from a dorm room about new video games, a blog from a coffee shop about underground hip-hop, or whatever – a lot of it is very cool and respected, indeed.

I’m as big a fan and supporter of free speech as the next guy. Heck, I think Thomas Jefferson and I could have a pint together and discuss it for hours upon hours, and still not find point where we’d disagree. I do, however, believe that there is something to be said about responsibility in media – be it old media or new media. I don’t care if you are the NY Times, 60 Minutes, NBC Nightly News, The Onion, The Daily Show with John Stewart, TechCrunch, The Somerville News, or a college blog – you must exercise responsibility.

Remember when Dan Rather got in trouble for his reporting of Bush’s military past? Yeah. A damn shame. I like Dan Rather, a lot of people did and still do. A true journalist – perhaps the last of his kind. But that was a mistake, and he admits that. Whether or not CBS over reacted is another story. There are countless other cases of this. True journalism, the kind worthy of our respect, loyalty, trust, is a dying. And that really saddens me.

Call me old school, but I still read the Sunday paper – the NY Times. And I still watch the local news – WCVB Boston to be exact, local news. If I can’t catch it at 6 (I rarely can) I try to catch it at 11. I like to watch NBC Nightly News. I miss Tom Brokaw, but Brian Williams is growing on me. I don’t like the cable news channels. I like Mass High Tech. I like AM radio, be it WEEI sports radio, or WBZ radio 1030. I like to get my variety of news. But I also like The Daily Show with John Stewart, a lot. I also enjoy The Colbert Report, a lot. I subscribe to and read Newsweek, Business Week, WIRED, Fast Company, Business 2.0, National Geographic, Inc., Fortune, Golf, and I’m sure there’s another one or two in there. I trust these sources of information and I like my variety. Ultimately, I make my own opinions based on these expert sources.

Regarding the Virgina Tech tragedy, I actually think that the major networks are doing a great job covering the story. They’re doing it with dignity and respect for those who lost loved ones. They’re showing all sides of the story; what’s known about the madman, what’s known about the students who were murdered and what they contributed to the world – how bright their futures could have been, and they’re reporting on the security measures taken and perhaps not taken and the school administration’s response and handling of the crisis. Again, I think the major networks are doing a fine job (so far).

I’m also disgusted, to my stomach, by what I’m seeing in other places. Last night, NBC news revealed that the VA Tech madman sent a package to NBC headquarters at Rock Center that included a “multimedia manifesto“, his martyr video if you will. He also included photos of himself armed like he’s in the 3rd Infantry Division. He included photos of the ammunition he used, the weapons. He included a long list of names he planned to wipe off the map. He included other things. Clearly, he was a very sick young man who really wanted to leave a mark in the history books and take out as many people with him as he could. Ok, anyway, NBC showed the video last night on the Nightly News. It was brief, they only showed a piece of it – not the whole tape. And Brian Williams stated something to the affect of “we choose not to show you more of this tape, for we don’t wish to make him more of a martyr than he already may be to some.” Again, I’m paraphrasing – but the point was made and I was very impressed with the restraint and responsibility exercised by Brian and NBC News.

Now, there are websites all over the web showing his video. Ok, fair enough – freedom in journalism right? Of speech? That’s the web, right? Right, ok. So why don’t I put the video on my site? Why not? It’s on MySpace, on YouTube, it’s available, so why shouldn’t I put it on my site too? Oh maybe it will bring me more traffic. Heck everyone else is why shouldn’t I?

Have we learned nothing from watching generations and generations of suicide bombings in the Middle East? Have we Americans learned nothing from watching Israel and Palestine destroy each other, on TV, on demand? Have we learned nothing from Iraq? Afghanistan? From September 11, 2001? Have we learned nothing from Beirut?

Madmen like Cho Seung-Hui want to be martyrs. That’s how they want to be remembered. And the only way they actually become martyrs is by giving them the exposure they hoped for, by broadcasting their manifesto, by distributing their name and their actions like they expect. That’s what makes them martyrs.

There are people out there, walking the streets, attending schools, working in the cubicles of corporate America, working machinery, digging holes, that actually think what Cho Seung-Hui did was OK, or that they can relate – they may have similar fantasies. They are out there. Maybe it started started, here in the states, with Columbine. Maybe it was Charles Manson, I don’t know. But there are those among us who are SO impressionable. So fragile. It takes very little for someone else in some other high school, in some other college, or workplace, who is already teetering on the edge of insanity to see Cho’s video and say “I want to be like him” or “I can do that.” I guarantee you, at this very moment, because of his video and its availability, there are many people across the country either looking for weapons and ammo and armor to do the same, or planning or thinking of something similar

When niche news websites that specialize in other kinds of news or topics post Cho’s video,- they are exercising total irresponsibility! Post a comment or blog entry expressing your sadness, that’s one thing. Talk about how something like this tragedy might impact you or your area of expertise, your vertical, whatever it is, sure. But post the video and participate in the distribution of Cho’s manifesto? I don’t think so. There is something very wrong with that.

In my daily blog reading this morning, one of the blogs I read very frequently about social networking websites, their progress, new ones, expired ones, etc., had an article displaying Cho’s video. Why? I guess because MySpace is – so somehow they think that’s news. Somehow that’s relevant or important. Ok, maybe it’s just my opinion or maybe my own politics or beliefs find that so objectionable that I’m over reacting. That’s possible. But the content of their article says virtually nothing about why they’re posting the video, how it applies to this social networking niche, why it’s relevant for their audience, whether or not this has some symbolic importance or not, or whatever the importance of it is. They simply posted the video and more or less cover their ass with some high-minded comment like…

Just as with the Saddam Hussein video, I’m not totally comfortable with the radical transparency we have these days. There are all kinds of issues that arise: now we have to censor our own media consumption, will we get an “anything goes” society? Is the fact that all videos now eventually end up on YouTube something to be celebrated?

And right below it is the video, in full effect for you to see and digest, and even share amongst your friends if you’d like. If the author finds this “anything goes” society even slightly objectionable, why contribute to it? Why? Page views? Uniques? Why bother?

The site I’m referring to is Mashable and it’s author is Pete Cashmore. I like reading Mashable, very much, I read Pete’s stuff every day. He and Mashable do a very fine job – in their niche, they’re area of expertise. I strongly believe that this was just irresponsible. If I want to see Cho’s video, I’ll find it elsewhere. But I don’t need to see it on Mashable. Definitely not.

I have so much more I’d like to say, but I’m afraid I’m probably not articulating myself well. Anger does that.

To all the new media websites out there: Just stick to what you know. Spare us from the rest.

Alright that’s enough. I’m done. I feel better now too.