Tuesday, April 17, 2007

Bloggers eye view of Virginia Tech

I drove home from work today to the breaking news about the Virginia Tech shootings. You don't have to work on a campus to appreciate the awfulness of the events but mental images become very vivid of students and professors starting another day of classes before their lives abruptly change - or cease. As the story unfolded, I stayed tuned to Five Live news, hoping to gather more information to fill the gaps in the pictures forming in my mind. When I got home, Chele was glued to BBC News 24 for the same reason.

When it became clear that the gunman was dead, the story moved into a different phase. The question was no longer 'What happened?' but 'Why did it happen?' Right now I'm listening to the news conference where the University President and Chief of Campus Police are facing aggressive questions from journalists on the level of security and why classes weren't cancelled after the first shootings.

We'll be able to read the analyses at leisure in the press tomorrow and beyond, but the first phase of the story - its breaking and unfolding - highlighted the weakness and frustration of mainstream news media trying to make sense of the sparse information that was emerging and the strength of 'citizen journalism' as students and witnesses blogged their personal accounts and experiences.

We were able to read an eye-witness account of one student directly affected, and injured, by the shooting in the Madness on Campus thread of the Live Journal blog. We could also witness the tensions between the mainstream media and the bloggers. With no other sources available, various news media, including MTV News, the Boston Herald and the Guardian, invaded the bloggers' space, only to find themselves repelled by insults and cries of 'whores', 'vultures' and 'ghouls'.

We've become used to relying on the media even though we may sometimes hate their methods of gathering - and competing with each other to gather - the fresh angle, the goriest photo, the most heart-rending witness account. However, while the horrors of the events in Virginia unfolded, it became clear that the untrained, non-professional 'citizen' journalists were able to keep the world informed while the official news media could only watch helplessly from a distance before being allowed access to a news conference to cry out 'Why?'

To anyone affected by these events who happens across this blog, Chele and I send our heartfelt prayers and best wishes.

Filed under:
Virginia Tech   blogs   citizen journalism


Faye Davies said...

Hi Pete,

I too found the events at Virginia disturbing and particularly resonant as a lecturer; this is a situation which you can both imagine and don't really want to at the same time. This was an event of horrendous proportions and I can only echo your thoughts and prayers for those involved both directly and indirectly.

In terms of the media coverage you discuss I found that I got most of my information online. Being on holiday I had the TV on anyway but found the coverage repetitive at best (News 24) and totally awful at worst (Fox - why I bother I will never know). This led me to turn to online sources, which I found far more swift and in terms of continuing developments relatively accurate with pertinent selection. Online sources yielded far more information although, as Pete discussed would shut down or move elsewhere once they found that the mainstream media was attempting to glean information. It really seems that the mainstream media's identity did not serve it well in any form today.

This was particularly pertinent with the attacks on various websites who immediately headlined that a particular student killed was the girlfriend of the killer. A couple of these, perhaps sensationalising beyond the boundaries, suggested that her 'face was responsible for the biggest massacre in US history'. The attacks on such stories have led to very public retractions and apologies, which is rather rare in such a format as has been seen (http://cnews.canoe.ca/CNEWS/World/2007/04/18/4057296-sun.html). Certainly a type of public sphere sprang into action and I think this is the start of a situation where 'real' journalists, in this case seemingly driven by deadline and sensationalist pressure, will begin to find themselves under growing attacks. Stories which involve a generation well versed with multimedia will implement it to uses beyond those previously seen. This week journalists have found that the internet is a double edged sword; doors have been closed to them, they have been rigorously scrutinised and some of their inadequacies and ‘holes in the story’ uncovered quickly and auctioned.

Of course, online the 'narrative' was strong and very emotional. But, what really hit home to me today is the absolute overhaul of the media landscape, even in the last couple of years. I have been aware of this, but never really felt seen such an instance so clearly. I think today had been another significant development in the nature of journalist practice.

Faye Davies
University of Central England

Pete W said...

Here's an example of a particularly insensitive media request on the LiveJournal forum...

Boston Herald
2007-04-16 07:38 pm UTC (link)
Hi, I hope that you and Kate are doing okay. I would love to chat with you about this horrific event. I understand that phones are not working well but maybe you can shoot me an email.

Pete W said...

Will Femia's 'Clicked' blog offers a pretty comprehensive gathering together of news, comment and context - clearly a very dedicated blogger!

Pete W said...

The link didn't work in the last post. Try it again

Pete W said...

More commentary courtesy of Adrian Monck. Is good journalism based on ethics or etiquette?