April 23, 2007

Campus Rampage is 2007’s Biggest Story By Far

PEJ News Coverage Index April 15 - 20, 2007

The front page of the April 18 Virginian-Pilot bore stark testimony to the April 16 events at Virginia Tech. Under a large ribbon of mourning and the words “in memory of,” the rest of the page was devoted to a roll call of almost all 32 victims of the deadliest shooting spree in U.S. history. On page 7, the paper ran photos and bios of the dead, a feature eerily reminiscent of the New York Times’ post-9/11 “Portraits of Grief.”

If the carnage in Blacksburg, Virginia did not match the scale or breadth of the attacks of 9/11, it was nonetheless an almost unfathomable tragedy that delivered a deep shock to the nation’s psyche. And it attracted a level of media coverage—reserved for mega-events that instantly make history books—that dwarfed any other story this year.

Last week’s reporting and commentary on the Virginia Tech massacre accounted for more than half (51%) of all the news coverage from April 15-20, according to PEJ’s News Coverage Index. By way of comparison, the year’s second second-most covered story—the debate over President Bush’s Iraq “surge” decision from January 7-12—filled 34% of the newshole that week.

In every media sector the Index examined, the campus disaster generated a record level of coverage. It consumed 50% of the radio airtime, 62% of the network TV newshole, and a remarkable 76% of cable news programming. (That was the first time any story this year consumed at least half the newshole in any media platform.). Even the newspaper front pages and online sector—which typically tend not to focus as intensely on one story as television does—devoted 27% and 37% to Virginia Tech, respectively.

Moreover, the events surrounding Cho Seung Hui’s rampage dominated media attention in a week full of events that normally would have attracted major coverage. The second biggest story overall was the U.S. attorneys controversy fueled by Attorney General Alberto Gonzales’s contentious April 19 appearance before Congress. But at only 6% of the overall newshole, it was dwarfed by the Virginia Tech saga. Events on the ground in Iraq were punctuated by a series of horrific April 18 attacks that killed more than 200 people. But the week’s third biggest story attracted only 5% of the coverage.

The 5-4 Supreme Court verdict on April 18 upholding the “partial birth” abortion ban—a crucial ruling on a polarizing culture war issue—was the fifth biggest story ( 3%). A massive Nor’easter that was responsible for at least a dozen deaths was number six at 3%. The April 20 hostage drama that resulted in two deaths at the Johnson Space Center in Houston was the eighth biggest story at 2% and the second biggest on cable at 6%. But it paled in comparison to the disaster in Blacksburg. And the firing of talk host Don Imus—which was the leading story for week of April 8-13—was completely overshadowed last week, plunging from 26% to 1%.

PEJ’s News Coverage Index is a study of the news agenda of 48 different outlets from five sectors of the media. (See a List of Outlets.) It is designed to provide news consumers, journalists and researchers with hard data about what stories and topics the media are covering, the trajectories of major stories and differences among news platforms. (See Our Methodology.)

Like almost any story of this magnitude, the coverage of Virginia Tech killings was driven by several major story lines that emerged at various points in the week. Early on, a good deal of the media focus was on the school’s actions and decision-making on the day of the rampage. As the days progressed, the attention turned to the issue of student privacy rights and mental health facilities on campus and eventually, to the issue of the Virginia Tech community trying to heal.

And as often occurs in these mega-stories, the media’s behavior itself became a significant theme of the coverage—in this case when NBC aired parts of a deeply disturbing video/manifesto sent by Cho Seung Hui. What soon followed was a heated debate over journalistic ethics and the often blurry line between news and sensationalism.

On NBC’s April 18 nightly newscast, when the network first aired the video, anchor Brian Williams stressed that “We are sensitive to how all of this will be seen by those affected and know we are, in effect, airing the words of a murderer here tonight.”

Initially, the impulse to air the controversial video carried the day. Parts of the same footage appeared on all 12 of the cable news shows included in the PEJ sample the evening of April 18. The next morning, on April 19, all three of the network morning shows continued to air the footage.

By then, however, the debate over the video was beginning to percolate. NBC’s “Today Show” discussed the fact that some Virginia Tech students had cancelled their scheduled interviews with the network as a result. As the day progressed, each outlet pulled back on the use of the video—but to different degrees. Those who did use the video often did so within a story examining the issue of whether to air it or not.

By Thursday night, some of the cable shows were showing brief excerpts of the videos while others were not showing anything at all. And by Friday morning, it appears that almost all of the TV outlets decided to stop airing the footage.

Online, however, it is harder to take back content. Videos were made available on major web sites and by Thursday morning (if not before) any person who was searching out the footage could find it through links on CNN.com, Yahoo News, MSNBC.com, and AOL News.

Typical of the intra-media debate was the April 19 edition of MSNBC’s “Scarborough Country.” Commentator Craig Crawford supported airing the footage saying, “I just firmly believe it’s the role of the media to get the information out there for society to figure out what to do with it.” Countered pundit Matthew Felling: “I think the copycat angle in this story is something that we cannot ignore.”

An April 20 USA Today story quoted NBC News President Steve Capus saying he “knew there would be some backlash…raw nerves exposed everywhere and true pain being felt.” But he added that “it would have been wrong to sit on this video…and not put it out there.” The story also quoted a man who lost a son in the Columbine High School massacre saying, “the timing is terrible. It was really irresponsible of NBC to do this…two days before the Columbine anniversary.”

If the media’s motives and methods were ripe for examination last week, so were the forces and factors that drove the 23-year-old South Korean native to such a destructive rampage.

One of the early efforts was a report during the April 17 edition of PBS’s “NewsHour,” (the entire show was devoted to the Virginia Tech tragedy) in which Cho Seung Hui was described as “a person on the periphery” and as someone nicknamed “question mark man” by his college classmates. Striking the same theme, his Virginia neighbors recalled him as a “mysterious person…who did not respond even to the most routine of greetings.”

Journalists spent the rest of the week trying to solve the difficult Cho Seung Hui puzzle—and coming up with much the same kind of profile. An April 20 Boston Globe story characterized him as someone who, from an early age, was “seemingly trapped behind an intense shyness and unwillingness to communicate that caused ridicule and isolation.” The story quoted school acquaintances who described him as an object of curiosity and sometimes scorn among his peers.

As the week wore on and the scope of the tragedy seemed to sink in, some of the earlier more aggressive angles to the media’s coverage began to soften. The initial concerns about whether Virginia Tech had acted effectively to protect its students seemed to quiet, at least temporarily. The gun control angle—which had the potential to become a hot button issue—failed to really catch fire, perhaps because politicians seemed wary of seizing on the issue.

And by week’s end, some of the coverage had pivoted to the beginning of the healing process—and on a palpable yearning on campus for some semblance of normalcy. In an April 20 report on NPR’s “Morning Edition” a Virginia Tech spokesman said, “We cannot let this horror define Virginia Tech. We’ve got to do whatever we can to try to get this place on its feet again.”

Those sentiments may also include a desire for a respite from the relentless glare of the national media spotlight. In that same report, the NPR correspondent described a hand-lettered sign that had been erected on the school’s drill field.

“VT stay strong,” it said. “Media stay away.”

Mark Jurkowitz and Paul Hitlin of PEJ

Note: The Tuesday morning CBS radio headlines were not included in this week's sample because the stations we normally record were broadcasting a press conference relating to the Virginia Tech shootings rather than their normal headlines.