Why we published photos of gunman

The message is in the eye of the beholder.

When the Review-Journal published on its front page the photos of Virginia Tech mass murderer Seung-Hui Cho in various threatening poses, including sticking the muzzle of a pistol into the eye of the camera, a number of readers took umbrage.

Believe me, there is no shortage of umbrage these days.

Some declared that such photos could be a catalyst for copycats.

"Your publishing of the picture of the killer at Virginia Tech in a posed setting on the front page is to me morally reprehensible," wrote one reader. "In my opinion it may encourage some other crazy who aspires notoriety. Why didn't you publish the pictures of the victims from their yearbooks instead? Shame on you."

Actually, once The Associated Press was able to track down photos of all 32 victims, we did. On a Sunday front page with a two-page spread inside.

From another outraged reader came this incensed comment: "I cannot think of a more irresponsible act other than to place a picture of a mass murderer on the front page of a newspaper. Who is that paper hoping to draw out of the woodwork? Another mass murderer? Where has common sense gone?"

A number of people believed our publication of the photos made a hero of the killer.

"Shame on the Review Journal!" shouted a reader. "The media as a whole always displays murderers as heroes, just as you have done. ... No wonder the Columbine murderers were this man's heroes too."

Then there was the call from the lady who identified herself as an eighth-grade teacher. She said the photos had been a topic of discussion at school that day and was curious to hear what I had to say about publishing them.

She, too, was concerned about the message the photos sent. While I contended they were a warning siren, she replied that one student took one look at them and said, "Cool."

I'm not sure what that says about whether or not the newspaper should publish such images, but it says frightening volumes about how we are rearing some of our children.

So, should the newspaper, in order to avoid arousing deviant behavior in a handful of psychopaths, withhold newsworthy information from the vast majority of readers who use it to gird themselves against the vicissitudes of a deranged society?

That is the kind thinking that led the Harvard School of Public Health to call for film studios to "eliminate the depiction of tobacco smoking from films accessible to children and youths."

Out of sight, out of mind. Ignore it and it will go away.

Are we supposed to simply shrug, offer condolences to the families of the victims and go blithely on with our lives until the next tragedy? Like some fatalistic determinist swept on the unstoppable tides of time?

Instead, I would contend there are lessons to be learned by confronting uncomfortable reality. Investor's Business Daily had an interesting take on this in an editorial headlined, "Victims Of Tolerance?":

"We've been indoctrinated by the liberal elite to believe that intolerance is the worse kind of evil -- even if it means shunning that which is hostile to our culture and traditional values -- and tolerance for tolerance's sake is the best kind of good.

"We've gone so overboard we now tolerate everything, even evil."

We don't teach our children Aesop's Fables anymore. More's the pity.

Every tale had a moral. Whether it was about greed or envy or fear or trust.

Likewise, there are lessons to be learned in many news stories and news photos. It is up to each intelligent, self-determining reader to find the moral, all the while being weary of that natural tendency to dictate to others what is good for them.

Some of us recognize the trait, as Mark Twain did in a letter to the Denver Post in 1902 when the Denver library banned "Adventures of Huckleberry Finn."

"I have their habits and live in the same glass house which they are occupying," Twain said of the book banners. "I am always reading immoral books on the sly, and then selfishly trying to prevent other people from having the same wicked good time."

Thomas Mitchell is editor of the Review-Journal and writes about the role of the newspaper and the First Amendment. He may be reached at 383-0261 or via e-mail at tmitchell@reviewjournal.com.