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Outlook: Dear Media, Quit Promoting Mass-Murderers

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Lionel Shriver
Author, "We Need to Talk About Kevin"
Monday, April 23, 2007; 2:00 PM

Lionel Shriver, whose book " We Need to Talk About Kevin" has been suggested as a possible inspiration for the Virginia Tech shooter, was online Monday, April 23 at 2 p.m. ET to discuss her Outlook article on the detrimental effects wall-to-wall media coverage of school shootings has on security, mental health and prevention.

What the Killers Want (Post, April 22)

The transcript follows.

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Lionel Shriver: At your disposal. Let's hope that if there's a next time we can chat about something more uplifting.

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Zurich, Switzerland: As a writer working on a novel that includes a couple of references to fictional episodes of mass murder and the media reaction to it (a satire), I wanted to ask you why you think such events have such social relevance that it compelled you to write about it? Also, for me what is more telling is the media reaction. You've already alluded to how the media coverage, sadly, spurs on the next madman. But what does it say about the rest of us?

Lionel Shriver: Said novel is, mercifully, finished, and was published in 2003. I was attracted to this material, if attracted is the word, because it screams backstory. There's a long, agonizing story behind each of these killings, and the Cho case is no exception. Natural subject matter for fiction.

I'm afraid that the media is feeding a culture-wide voyeurism. It's chicken or the egg whether the media is creating that appetite, or merely feeding it.

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Atlanta: More comment than question: I agree that the media reaction sets up a knee-jerk reaction from schools. My nephew is a well-grounded kid but a bit of a smartass. On the school bus one day some of the kids were talking (negatively) about their parents and he pipes up that he wants to kill his parents ... with a salad fork! Well, the bus driver overheard the remark and reported him to school authorities who went way overboard: school suspension for a week, required counseling sessions with him and his parents, etc. And who can forget the kid in Atlanta who made national news for getting suspended for two weeks for having a Tweety Bird key chain, part of the "zero tolerance policy." It bothers me that kids get punished for these types of frivolous infractions, but the "system" cannot seem to recognize true mental illness when it's staring them right in the face.

Lionel Shriver: That's exactly the kind of institutional overreaction that I was writing about.

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Tempe, Ariz.: Based on news values, do you think the news media is prone to negativity? If so, is sensationalism merely a byproduct?

Lionel Shriver: Good news is no news. But I do think the media plays up a story like this to excess. In the same week, 200 Iraqis were killed in a single day, and that story was shoved to the inside pages.

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Fairfax, Va.: Your Opinion piece was appalling. No matter how one slices it, any reader who is even slightly deranged (if there is such a thing) is very likely to see it as inspiration. The novel never should have been written, never mind published. You'd call it self-censorship; I call it good citizenship given the kind of world we live in.

Lionel Shriver: I'm disconcerted how that opinion piece would be an inspiration. I may feel discomfited by the implicit hypocrisy of decrying media the excessive attentions of the media to these stories while participating in those attentions. But the novel does not remotely glorify the violence in it, and you are better off decrying the publication of a book that you have actually read.

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Freising, Germany: I recall back in public school that a teacher told us that assassins are often sorry individuals who want to achieve fame for the wrong reasons. Cho seems to have had visions of grandeur, but I question the postulation that he wouldn't have done the shooting if he didn't think that he'd posthumously be on primetime television. You mentioned a similarity in method between your fictional character and Cho, but was there any indication that Cho studied media broadcasts of other tragedies, such as Columbine?

Lionel Shriver: Who could have missed the foofaraw after Columbine? You'd have to have been living on the moon. So of course he was aware of it.

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Washington: Reading the summary and commentary on your book is just eerie and sad given the recent Virginia Tech situation. Did your research on parent-child relationships show you that this situation is more common than known, so no surprise? Or, is this event shocking to you?

Lionel Shriver: All of these events are shocking to me. When we get to the point that we're not shocked, then we're really in trouble.

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Arlington, Va.: I agree with the point in your Outlook article that most people in this world do not want to admit: People die unfairly all of the time, and in many of these instances there's nothing we can do about it. I keep seeing commentators say that they hope we can enact reforms so that this will never happen again. That's incredibly unrealistic -- of course, this is going to happen again, and eventually someone will kill more than 32 people. Why do you think people can't accept that some of us are going to die and there's not a damn thing anyone can do about it?

Lionel Shriver: The drive to find "solutions" is powerful, since no one wants to just throw up their hands and admit helplessness. But aside from addressing gun control responsibly, the solutions can become their own problem. Especially the kind that don't work. Which is most of them.

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Anonymous: I read your movie about Kevin is in the works. Will there be any change in schedule because of recent events?

Lionel Shriver: I have no idea. I doubt it. They're working on the script. The project will doubtless proceed at its own pace. I stay out of it.

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Fairfax, Va.: When I first heard that NBC had received that package of photos and videos from the Virginia Tech shooter, and that these menacing images were now all over the media, all I could think of was how that contrasted with what happened when John Lennon was killed: all the media seemed in sync in refusing to publish even the name of his killer. What a great idea that was! Do you think today's media could ever live up to those kinds of ideals?

Lionel Shriver: Unlikely, and I'm loath to embrace censorship. But there's nothing wrong with exercising good editorial judgment. I came across a blog recently that posed the question, "Name one good thing that came of airing those Cho videos." I couldn't think of one. Astute.

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Alexandria, Va.: By inserting their network logo prominently in each of Cho's photographs, NBC has taken on the appearance of a sponsor. It seems strange that an organization would want to associate themselves so closely with this sort of event. Is NBC now the go to network for publicity seeking psychos?

Lionel Shriver: Yes, that's what they've asked for, isn't it? If you were going to shoot up your school, wouldn't you think, oh, I see, that's the drill, you send the video to NBC?

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Washington DC: Thanks a lot for your critical article! Is it true, that numerous kids were expelled for writing work during the post-Columbine period?

Lionel Shriver: Yes. Even violent poetry.

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Deming, N.M.: I can understand this unique situation where a mass killer strikes and the public wishes to know about the killer, his motivations, background, etc. Yet don't we focus too much attention on the perpetrators of a crime and not enough on the victims? I often have suggested that the media should even consider refocusing their headlines and focus of their articles from the accused to the victim. I say this for this reason: there are some criminals who are attracted to this attention. If we took away this attraction, we not only shine the light to where it belongs -- the results of crime -- but we take away the attention to that some criminals crave.

Lionel Shriver: The problem is essentially narrative. The story of the victim, as sad as it may be, is not narratively compelling: person who doesn't deserve it gets shot. Wrong place wrong time. As a story, it doesn't excite your curiosity -- whereas "really quiet guy suddenly murders 32 people and himself" does.

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New York: Had NBC not aired the tape and it was discovered that they were holding it, there would be massive outcries by all -- public and media -- about how they should air it, how it's newsworthy specifically because it could show insight into the largest mass murder and mass murderer in U.S. history, how this will help the families have their questions answered and give them closure. NBC found itself in an (un)enviable position and did what the news media is supposed to do -- share the news.

Lionel Shriver: I take your point. And lest I seem self-righteous, I watched those videos, and something in me wanted that information.

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Washington: I tend to agree with your proposition that focusing on the killers in mass killings such as the one at Virginia Tech serves to "give the killers what they want," and that the news media, in an ideal world, should avoid providing such publicity. On the other hand, in the real world, dysfunction sells papers. No matter how deplorable it may be, many of us find that the killers are far more interesting to read about than the victims. Is it realistic for the media to avoid disseminating information in which there is widespread interest?

Lionel Shriver: I don't expect news programs to fail to report the biggest mass murder in American history. On the other hand, they're playing this one for all it's worth. On my own account, even doing an online chat like this is starting to make me feel guilty. Complicit.

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One more on releasing the tapes: My bet is that just about everyone who heard about the tapes rushed to watch them on TV. I know I did. I did not want to hear anything more about the massacre and everyone's ideas about it (over and over), but I did want to hear what this kid had to say. Maybe it's just so I could make some sense out of it all. I would guess that most people felt the same way, and only afterwards decided they shouldn't have been shown. After all, if they hadn't shown them, we'd all be screaming at NBC about that...

Lionel Shriver: As I remarked to another commentator on this blog, I wanted to see the videos too. You're right -- you need to tell yourself a coherent story to make some loose sense of it all. And the videos gave us a glimpse inside this poor bastard's head. Then I have a backlash response: why should I care about what's inside his head, of all people's?

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Re: NBC and the tapes: My opinion is that had NBC waited to show the tapes, for a week or two perhaps, they wouldn't have received anywhere near the criticism they have. Again, in my opinion, they were correct to show the tapes -- these tapes don't aggrandize the individual, but rather paint a vivid picture of a person who is out of touch with reality. This picture should be held in our communal psyche and we should try to learn how better to identify and intervene with people like this before they become a danger to others or themselves. What is striking to me are the similarities between this killer and those at Columbine, not to mention the others in our history that have taken such actions. I'm not certain anything could have been done to stop this delusional person, but if there is any possibility of stopping another delusional person, then we should all try to learn from the record he left -- it might prove to be the only useful thing he did.

Lionel Shriver: There's a recognizable type, I think, that is vulnerable to contemplating this kind of violence -- a lethal combination of self-pity and grandiosity. It's exactly the same type that becomes a suicide bomber.

But I already knew that. I'm not sure that I was better informed in any useful way by those videos. I was simply curious, voyeuristic, and I think if we're honest with ourselves that's why we watch this stuff, and not because we want to "learn" so that we can prevent these incidents in future.

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Bethesda, Md.: I realize that the release of Cho's diatribes was very painful for the families, but did he really get what he wanted? I understand that broadcasting his videos, pictures, etc. gets his message out, but I tend to believe he wanted people to understand and be persuaded by that message -- that other people drove him to do this, none of this is his fault, etc. I doubt many people thought that ... mostly what we saw was a pathetic, naive and very troubled kid. I don't think that conclusion would have satisfied him. Any thoughts?

Lionel Shriver: Oh, no one wants to be regarded as pathetic. So in that sense, no he didn't get what he imagined for himself. But even more importantly? HE'S DEAD. I don't think these shooters ever quite register what that means. Like, you don't get to watch yourself on television. So when they shoot themselves at the end of these sprees--as they so often do, to escape any consequences if nothing else--all the you'll-be-sorry! gratification that these folks imagine for themselves is never delivered. I simply fear that others who watch Cho and imagine themselves being equally made much of do not register that Cho isn't enjoying any of this--do not register what being dead is.

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Hokie Alum: After digesting all of the media coverage of my beloved school last week, I was pleasantly surprised -- I think for the most part the media did a great job of letting us know first what happened, and then the reaction of the community. There is one criticism I feel should be noted (and it isn't the Cho video sent to NBC). Especially on Monday and Tuesday, I thought the media was way too berating toward Virginia Tech President Steger and Police Chief Flinchum over their decisions between 7:15 a.m. and 9:45 a.m. that morning. Although we Hokies recognize that the questions that the media were asking are completely legitimate (and indeed now the Governor has a task force looking into it), the way the questions were being asked -- and when they were being asked -- I thought was extremely disrespectful. This is why President Steger got the standing ovation during the convocation.

Lionel Shriver: I concur. I was equally queasy over the readiness with which accusations of malfeasance began to fly. I resist the exercise of cheap hindsight. It would have been hard enough to handle that horror show on your campus without turning on the TV and being told it was all your fault.

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Frederick, Md.: Is there a relationship, do you think, between the melodrama/microscope focus of the media on disaster at home, and the near-absence of much of the world from the "map" an intelligent news-consumer might construct: Virtually no South America, Africa or Asia when neither a world power (China, Japan), a catastrophe (Darfur, Iraq) or an annoyance to U.S. (Chavez, Castro, Morales et al). What might this tell us -- as maybe a novelist might -- about ourselves?

Lionel Shriver: To be fair, people are interested in stories in which they can imaginatively insert themselves. The farther away the story, geographically, economically, from your own circumstances, the more energy it takes to care. School shootings hit close to home. But it's not just Americans who have a hard time feeling powerfully about the other side of the world. If you go to Bangkok, the stories in the paper are all about Thailand.

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Washington: What is "slightly deranged" regarding thoughts and writings? I always thought there is a slight difference between words and actions...

Lionel Shriver: I'm a big defender of being as nuts as you like on paper. Fair enough, Cho's writings were alarming. But we don't want to get to the point where creative writing students are terrified of writing anything "deviant" because they'll be kicked out of school.

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Rockville, Md.: How do you feel college students should proceed with their playwriting classes? If they enjoy writing creatively about the twisted, macabre, and often violent things (a la Stephen King) what will professors do and or think? How do you differentiate between someone who is presenting a red flag and the others?

Lionel Shriver: You use common sense. A rare commodity, I'm afraid.

In our accelerating obsession with "safety," we're in danger of creating a stifling, repressive cultural climate. I think we have to live with risk. Frankly, Europe is even worse. They think they can create a perfectly safe world, and they control everything--like, whether you can climb a ladder on the job. It's like living in Romper Room.

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Bethesda, Md.: Maybe there should be a delay in the broadcast of information like this, maybe sealed for two weeks to a month -- would not be good for ratings, though.

Lionel Shriver: I don't think there's anything wrong with airing one's disgust when for a solid week you can't turn on the TV or pick up a newspaper without seeing that guy's zoned-out face. But I really wouldn't argue for a bunch of new rules or laws that control what the media do and don't have to do. That's the kind of overreaction and urge to control and find a "solution" that I decry.

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Washington: Did you hear "On the Media" this weekend? An official at the CBC (Canada) gave very good reasons for withholding the airing of the videos. He also said that, basically, NBC had an eye on the ratings.

Lionel Shriver: I didn't see it.

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Silver Spring, Md.: I just want to strongly disagree with the person who said it's irresponsible to write a book that a deranged person might misinterpret. If we cleanse our world of all material sources that have "caused" crazy people to murder we would miss out on classic books and movies. Pet dogs would not be allowed. There'd be no Beatles. Certainly no Bible. And yet, I'd bet anything that insanity and murder would still exist in such a society.

Lionel Shriver: Fair play. If fiction writers are only allowed to describe characters doing things that the authors were happy for a readership to emulate, then novels would only have their characters putting out fires and rescuing cats from trees. You want to read those books? I don't.

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Arlington, Va.: What I find disquieting is how all the publicity about one event leads the next killer to improve upon the model. For example, much was made of the Columbine killers causing everyone to run from the cafeteria and then cornering their victims in the library. Cho apparently learned well as he chained Norris Hall doors shut then was able to corner his victims in classroom after classroom.

Lionel Shriver: Yes, not only is this phenomenon contagious, but it's competitive.

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Arlington, Va.: One of the things I found most disturbing about the release of Cho's video and photos was the way the media used them -- not just making them news, but then making them the foundation for a continual loop on television, when other commentators were talking. And even worse, using graphic photos on the front pages of news organizations. It was rather shocking to log onto CNN.com and find a large photo of Cho pointing a gun right at the camera, or effectively, the viewer. Or to click to WashingtonPost.com and see a large shot of Cho brandishing two guns, looking menacingly at the viewer. I can understand the need to run the images, but there seemed to be no discretion with how they were used. Children, people with problems with guns, or just an average Joe like myself who was a little bothered by those shots (especially the CNN.com one) probably didn't need to see them without some kind of warning. Just my thought...

Lionel Shriver: There's no question that across the board the media have loved this story and have milked it for all it's worth. I mean, are you not sick of it already? I am. Sick to death.

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Arlington, Va.: As far as the tapes go, I think we're better informed, but I don't think we're better off.

Lionel Shriver: Well put.

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New York: How does a news outlet like NBC ultimately discern where the public's right to know becomes their desire to know, and when is it just plain voyeurism? All of the commentary I have read has been very interesting, but how do outlets like NBC define the need to know?

Lionel Shriver: There is no need to know at issue here. Why did I need to know, really? Why did you? NBC was feeding an appetite, and they knew it. If my job were all about achieving high viewership statistics, who knows, maybe I'd have made the same decision.

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