Thoughts About Media Coverage of the Virginia Tech Tragedy


Thoughts About Media Coverage of the Virginia Tech Tragedy


posted 5.01.07

<a href="">Otto Wahl, Ph.D.</a>, University of Hartford

The tragic death of 33 students at Virginia Tech has shocked and saddened us all. Given the mental health aspects of the situation, it is not surprising that there has been much in the coverage about mental illnesses and their treatment. Unfortunately, the articles and editorials that followed the shootings have often been troubling in what they convey to the public about mental illnesses and mental health interventions.

One troubling aspect of the media coverage has been the frequent vilification and dehumanization of the troubled young man who perpetrated the killings. Appropriately sympathetic descriptions of the background and lives of the "32" victims were widespread, and such descriptions helped us to better appreciate the tragedy on a more personal level. However, descriptions of the 33rd person who died in the tragedy, Cho Seung-Hui, focused almost exclusively on his pathology, his anger, and his menacing manner. Some media sources characterized Cho as motivated by "meanness;" others labeled him as a "fiend," a "psychopath," or "just plain "evil." Such coverage ignored the fact that Cho&#39;s death—and much of his life—was also a tragedy. His alienation, isolation, anger, and ultimate suicide are probably not the life goals he set out for himself. Much of the media coverage did discuss Cho&#39;s mental health, but mostly without notable empathy for his difficulties.

Related is the mistaken implication in coverage of Cho&#39;s actions that mental illness and violence are synonymous. The widespread images of Cho brandishing weapons epitomized the already prevalent public image of the "menacing madman," and that image was underscored further by the fear-inducing labels Cho was given in many media accounts, such as "maniac" and "psycho" and worse. Likewise, the repeated discussions of the need to protect the college community—and the larger community—from such individuals served to reinforce unwarranted public fears of people with mental illnesses. The vast majority of people with mental illnesses, including severe mental illnesses, are neither violent nor criminal. The vast majority of students on campus who are living with mental illnesses are not threatening others, but working and studying to make better lives for themselves. I saw little discussion of this in media coverage.

The events at Virginia Tech were truly horrendous. The media, like the public, searched to make sense of the tragedy and to find clues as to how future tragedies could be prevented. However, there was a tendency to focus on mental illness as the sole or primary explanation for the horrific outcome at Virginia Tech. Many reporters and even mental health professionals seemed to commit what social scientists have dubbed the "fundamental attribution error." This term refers to our tendency to attribute the actions of others, particularly unacceptable actions, to their inner, psychological attributes and to neglect potential situational influences. If we succumb to this error and focus mainly on the possible internal causes of behavior, the mental health of Cho Seung-Hui in this case, we may overlook other potential contributors to the event and, thus, other potential and important avenues for prevention.

Often overlooked, then, were questions about how we engage or do not engage students on our college campuses or how we do or do not integrate diverse students to better create a sense of community, questions about what gaps in understanding and education about cultural differences might have contributed to Cho&#39;s apparent isolation and to the ultimate outcome, and questions about the extent to which stigma and negative attitudes about mental health problems could have contributed to Cho&#39;s apparent reluctance to accept counseling assistance despite the recommendations of Virginia Tech faculty.

Instead of looking at the factors above, many media reports implied—directly or indirectly—that the major preventive solution is the lessening of restrictions on involuntary hospitalization. After horrific events like the Virginia Tech deaths, it is easy to forget that the current criteria for involuntary psychiatric commitment result from a long history of indiscriminate and abusive use of forced hospitalization and from a belated recognition that the individual civil rights of people with mental illnesses need protection. Just as the tragic events of 9/11 should not have allowed us to dismantle the basic civil liberties on which our country is founded, a tragic event like Virginia Tech should not serve as justification for diminishing the hard won civil protections of the millions of people with mental illnesses. But it may, and some of the news coverage is suggesting that it should.

Also, it is not clear that involuntary commitment for Cho would have been the appropriate solution. Coerced treatment may have poorer long term outcomes than voluntary treatment if it creates trauma and fuels antagonism and poorer treatment compliance. For a person like Cho, who already felt persecuted and angry, this may have been likely. So hospitalization might have only postponed the tragic outcome. Outpatient treatment may have had a better chance of succeeding in helping Cho and preventing the lethal outcome. In hindsight, we know it was not successful, but we do not know that involuntary hospitalization would have had more success.

The events at Virginia Tech have led to calls for greater security on campuses and for a better ability of campus authorities to exclude people with serious mental illnesses from the campus. Again, this represents a troubling inclination to further restrict the rights and opportunities of people living with mental illnesses. Easier hospitalization and campus restrictions are not what is needed for preventing tragedies such as the one at Virginia Tech. Instead, we need better training of service providers to deal with individuals who are reluctant to accept treatment, and therapeutic alternatives that are more attractive, less aversive, and better funded. We also need reduced stigma for seeking and accepting treatment, along with greater outreach and prevention efforts.

I do not mean to suggest that there was no sensitive and appropriate media coverage of the events. Many stories were sympathetic to the needs of troubled youth on campuses, urging improvements and cautioning against attempts to exclude students. Former Rosalynn Carter Journalism Fellow, John Head, for example, wrote, in the <i><a href="">Atlanta Journal Constitution</a></i>, "A policy that punishes students for enduring emotional and mental disturbances will only discourage them from seeking help." Articles and editorials have called for expanded suicide prevention programs and improvements in culturally competent services, as well. An article in the <i><a href="">Washington Post</a></i>, by another former Carter Fellow, Shankar Vedantam looked "beyond the shooter," to consider social factors that may have contributed to the fatal outcome. And there did emerge a number a number of pieces that looked more fully and sympathetically at the life of Cho Seung-Hui and at his family&#39;s pain and suffering.

Media coverage also brought to light the archaic and offensive language of the federal statutes for regulation of gun purchases. I am referring to the prohibition against selling guns to "mental defectives,&#39; a category which, for the federal government, apparently includes persons with mental illnesses. I am amazed that such a reference to mental illness—language that was discarded decades ago because of its pejorative nature and its connection to eugenics and Nazi cleansing—could still be the chosen terminology in the laws of our country.I can only hope that the wide exposure of this language in the press may lead to sufficient embarrassment and/or outrage as to generate an appropriate updating.

I am, however, cautiously optimistic. Despite the great deal of stigmatizing coverage that has surrounded the tragic loss of life at Virginia Tech, the discussions that are occurring have the potential to generate important changes. Chief among these are greater understanding of and improved responsiveness to mental health needs on campuses. I do not mean to suggest, as some media coverage has, that these are needed primarily to protect the student body from unstable shooters, but rather that they are needed so that universities can enhance their abilities to support the learning and accomplishment of all students, including the many who experience mental health problems.


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Otto Wahl




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Otto Wahl, “Thoughts About Media Coverage of the Virginia Tech Tragedy,” The April 16 Archive, accessed June 21, 2024,