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When the news is disturbing, sensitivity is key

The outcry was understandable.

He was a killer. He took the lives of 32 human beings, most of them on the verge of entering their professional lives. He wreaked havoc on a quiet college campus and horrified a nation by his senseless act.

So why flash his words, his videos and his photos across the airwaves and on the pages of our print and Internet news outlets?

Why give voice to his deranged harangues against society?

Why allow him to justify from the grave his maniacal actions?

Why? Why? Indeed, why?

There are no easy answers. The simple one is that journalism's role in society is to report the news.

What Seung-Hui Cho did was news of tragic yet monumental proportions. Why he did what he did and how he told us why he did what he did was also news.

Certainly it was disturbing news, especially to the families, friends and loved ones of the 32 no longer with us. To see his menacing face and hear his venom-filled tirades was disturbing. But that does not mean journalists should abdicate their role.

Much of the news reported through various outlets is disturbing, some of it more than others.

It's disturbing to read about and sometimes see hordes of civilians snuffed out by a terrorist's bomb. It's disturbing to see the emaciated bodies of starving children, their faces begging for food in countries torn by civil war.

In such cases, it's how journalists convey the news that's critical. Sensitivity becomes especially important, although responsible journalists must always consider that aspect of reporting news. Too often, a disturbed public equates callousness, insensitivity, ratings or circulation to the news it receives.

And sometimes, that's a legitimate complaint. For instance, this newspaper's decision to run Cho's picture, guns in each hand, across the top of its front page, might border on insensitive.

Surely the picture was valuable news, graphically conveying the message of just how deranged the killer was. But perhaps smaller and not in such dominance of the newspaper's most important page might have been a more sensitive method of accomplishing the journalistic purpose.

Most often, though, the importance of the news outweighs the trauma it causes. And sometimes, even disturbing news can make society better.

Might Cho's invectives against those who belittled him give pause to others who might belittle? Might a classmate, a teacher, a counselor, perhaps even a parent, recognize sullen traits and react now that Cho made them aware of his reasons?

The impact of journalistic decisions, nay all decisions in life, requires consideration of the decision's impact on others. It's called ethics. And often there are no easy answers.

Lee Coppola is dean of the Jandoli School of Journalism and Mass Communication at St. Bonaventure University.

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