Should TV News Show Elliot Rodger’s Video?

Ever since Elliot Rodger’s killing spree in Isla Vista, TV news has been showing his disturbing ‘Retribution’ video as part of their reports. Inside newsrooms, the debate is how much and what—indeed if any—of the footage should be shown.

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It was 30 seconds into the The Video—that is, the widely disseminated, six-minute-long “Retribution” video shot by mass murderer Elliot Rodger in the front seat of his BMW—that Morning Joe cohost Mika Brzezinski had seen enough.

“I don’t want to give it any more than that,” she said on the air during Tuesday’s show. Off-camera, Joe Scarborough—Brzezinski’s partner on the MSNBC program—had made a cutting motion with his hand, signaling the control room to dump out of it early.

“It’s pretty simple,” Brzezinski told me afterward, explaining their decision to cut it short, earlier than planned. “The video was certainly a significant part of the story, and I had known before the show that it was kind of an issue. We had talked about it and we decided to go with a rolling soundbite…As it started to roll, I thought, ‘OK, you know what? This is enough.’… I felt like I didn’t want to be indulgent with it. So I asked them to stop, and Joe was saying the same thing.”

Brzezinski and Scarborough are among the television anchors and producers, broadcast and cable, who have been grappling since Friday’s horrific killings in Isla Vista, Calif., with a disturbing and relatively recent phenomenon made possible by technological advances. Namely, any homicidal maniac with access to a digital camera and a laptop can try to justify, explain or otherwise glamorize his crime, post it on the Internet and thus achieve the instant (if sometimes posthumous) gratification of global fame.

The 22-year-old Rodger, who killed himself after stabbing or shooting to death six fellow students at UC Santa Barbara, was only the latest in a series of self-glorifying miscreants who have included Osama bin Laden, the kidnappers of the Nigerian schoolgirls and, in April 2007, a deranged Virginia Tech student named Seung-Hui Cho, who made a chilling video (also in his automobile) before massacring 32 students and professors in Blacksburg, Va.

Excerpts of Cho’s video were aired over and over in the aftermath of the massacre—he sent the tape to NBC News—leaving the sour feeling with some critics that the news media was thoughtlessly exploiting the macabre drama in the service of ratings and clicks on the Web.

On Saturday, YouTube removed Rodger’s ‘Retribution’ video, and today all his other YouTube videos have been removed from the site.

On television, Brzezinski and others are attempting to be more sensitive to the implications of easy sensationalism. At Tuesday morning’s regular editorial meeting, ABC News President James Goldston told his troops that the “Retribution Video” will be used with restraint.

“James said that unless there is a specific editorial reason to use it, we would err on the side of not using it,” ABC News spokesman Jeffrey Schneider told The Daily Beast. “We are going to be very judicious about the use of that video, mindful that its continued use turns it into wallpaper.” CBS and NBC have adopted similar approaches, according to sources at both networks. [The Daily Beast itself linked to the video in its initial reporting.]

At Fox News, news vice president Michael Clemente instructed the weekend crew not to air the video at all, but instead to use only five still photographs, out of concern that the video might inspire copycats to action, according to a Fox News spokesperson.

Brzezinski, meanwhile, said: “I think if we showed that video again, which we very well could, I’d want to cover it in the context of mental health. I would like to have an expert on the set with us—someone who’s an expert not only in warning signs but in these personalities and/or conditions.”

She added: “Look, we are all struggling with how to handle stories like this with the deepest respect for the victims but also with an understanding that society needs to move forward and understand these people, and there are profiles involved. And the more we can see a profile in real life, the more it might help somebody get that feeling before rather than after the fact.”