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Poynter Institute's Bob Steele '69 Discusses Media Coverage of Virginia Tech Gunman

April 23, 2007

Bob Steele Ethics Cauldron.jpgApril 23, 2007, Greencastle, Ind. - "This is the classic ethical issue where there could be multiple right answers and multiple wrong answers," said Bob Steele, Nelson Poynter Scholar for Journalism Values and Senior Faculty, Ethics, at the Poynter Institute for Media Studies and 1969 graduate of DePauw University. Steele is quoted in an Associated Press story that examines the decision by media organizations to use video and other materials that were mailed by the Virginia Tech gunman to NBC on the day of his killing spree.

"Did news judgment compel NBC and other organizations to use the material Virginia Tech shooter Seung-Hui Cho intended for his epitaph? Or was this a case where revulsion should have left them in a desk drawer?," asks the AP's David Bauder. "They're tough questions for journalists, not made any easier by an apparent attempt by TV news organizations to have it both ways when the heat was turned up ... NBC News was at the tip of these issues when the photos, videos and written ramblings from Cho arrived in its mailroom Wednesday. Every other news organization faced the same questions when the material reached the public domain, and virtually all reached the same initial conclusion."

Read the complete story at the Web site of the Denver Post.Bob Steele 4.jpg

In another column in the Houston Chronicle, Steele states, "I believe that the video and Cho's so-called manifesto add pieces to a complex puzzle, albeit, a very painful puzzle. We may not know more about why he did what he did, but his tape and his writings might give us more understanding of what happened on Monday and why it happened as it did."

Media outlets received criticism for airing and publishing the gunman's messages, which some argue was in poor taste and sensationalistic. Steele maintains, "There has been a great deal of respectful, high-quality journalism on this difficult story. I think that we in journalism have to accept that some of the things we do will draw brickbats. But if we're doing it for the right reason, for justifiable journalistic purpose, and we're doing it with care, then we have to accept that the criticism will come even when we're doing it for the right reason and doing it well."

Although the pictures of Cho were upsetting to some, "That shouldn't prevent us from doing something," Steele says. "What it means is we need to bring a very high level of care to how we do it and the tools of tone and proportion allow us to go into tough territory. I believe whether it's interviewing vulnerable people or using the video of Cho, or describing the details of the horrific events on Monday, when we use proper tone and proper proportion we can tell substantive, compelling stories. We should always leave ourselves open to challenge, but just because we're challenged doesn't mean we're wrong."

Read more at the Chronicle. Steele also contributes to stories in the Chicago Tribune and Florida's Gainesville Sun.

Bob Steele was also recently quoted in articles on Don Imus and a plagiarism controversy at CBS News

Steele and William F. Welch '40 will receive honorary degrees at DePauw's 168th annual commencement, Sunday, May 20, 2007. Learn more about the two recipients in this previous article.

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