Anchor Brian Williams: “This is easily the saddest place in our nation tonight because this place will now be known forever as the scene of the largest mass shooting in U.S. history. … This one single incident will no doubt affect every American student somehow, along with their families.”
“There is no manual in desk editors’ drawers for covering a tragedy,” NBC Nightly News Producer Donna Bass said. “Each presents a different and difficult reality. No experience deadens the shock, but it is often the shock that drives the professionalism.”
Covering the April 18 Virginia Tech mass killing that claimed the lives of 33 people was complicated enough, but for NBC it became even more delicate three days after the shootings, when a mailman approached an NBC security officer with a package.
It contained the manifesto of the killer, Seung-Hui Cho.
Senior investigative producer/special projects Robert Windrem recalled that NBC “was the only media to receive Cho’s manifesto, and we had to describe how to balance the obvious news value with the sensitive nature of the tragedy. Everyone knew we had no choice but air what we had seen … and everyone knew there would be a torrent of criticism. …it was our duty to report on the contents of that package.”
Bass said, “There were other issues informed by our reporting, combined with the manifesto and video — particularly, did the university understand the danger he posed? Did it do enough?”
In the beginning, Windrem said, there was “a torrent of criticism. Hadn’t we given Cho the legacy he wanted in his warped rampages? No. The reality was that the material answered questions the public was asking.”
Bass added, “His ‘legacy’ is not what we aired. His ‘legacy’ is what he did. Ours is as well.”
Judges cited the “excellent coverage of a breaking news situation with sensitivity and clarity.”