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The social media and Virginia Tech massacre

How private is the personal anguish of students who have published their grief on the Web following  the Virginia Tech massacre? Many of their accounts have  been highlighted in worldwide media reports. But some feel the press has been too intrusive.

Never before has the Internet been so high profile during a crime following the merciless slayings in Virginia Tech. The whole world can have instant access into the killer’s warped and very troubled mind, we can read this violent one-act play which Cho Seung-Hui’s wrote, based on a 13-year-old boy who accuses his stepfather of paedophilia and murdering his father. It ends with the man killing the boy. The tone is aggressive throughout and full of hatred.

Fellow students, stunned and shocked, have been pouring out  their grief on blogs and Facebook. Reporters have scoured blogosphere to track down these personal outpourings of grief to provide witness accounts of the tragedy.

But according to some Web reports, they have overstepped the mark. The San Francisco Chronicle describes how students have  been flocking to social networking sites, and that some are disgusted with journalists checking out blogs and social networks for their personal accounts:

Journalist Robin Hamman gives an excellent first-hand report about his personal experience on Cybersoc.com , describing how he had passed on such info to BBC News Online and BBC Radio 5 Live, and was then asked to confirm it with the author; other journalists jumped on the bandwagon too, some not displaying any sensitivity or tact. It is really fascinating stuff:

“I wasn’t the only person working for a news agency who yesterday turned to the blogs to find stories. In fact, an astonishing number of journalists tried to make contact with the author of the post by commenting on it – below are some of the approaches:

  • “Sorry to hear about this. CBC Newsworld is doing live interviews with people who are affected by the shooting. Can you please drop me a line at [email] when you have a moment? THANKS”
  • “This account sounds horrific – I’m so sorry for you and your friends. I’m with NPR and if you feel comfortable speaking to the media please email me at [email]. We are trying to get the full story out to our audience. “
  • “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. I was wondering if blogging, MySpace, Facebook and Friendster are the best way to communicate while the phones are tangled. Stay safe and I hope Kate recovers quickly.”
  • “Hi–I work for MTV News and we’re sending two crews down to VT. They’ll be interviewing students and other people affected by the tragedy. We’d be grateful if you or any of your friends would share your stories with our audience. Please contact me at [email] if you’d be willing to talk to us. You guys are all in our thoughts.
  • and

    I’m sorry to hear about what has happened today. I am a news reporter at The Guardian newspaper in London and we are hoping to get in touch with students who could give us a little more detail about what went on. We are also looking for blogs about what happened that we could post on our website. If you felt comfortable discussing this all further, please do get in touch. My email is [email]”

  • “Would like to get your story of this terrible tragedy. If you could call me asap I would really appreciate it.”
  • “I am so sorry to read about your friend, Kate. Your account here gives me goosebumps. I’d like to speak with you if at all possible. My number is [number of LA Times], if you feel like talking. Thanks very much”
  • “I work on a current affairs show on Australia’s national youth radio station … obviously I’m contacting you about the shooting. We’re keen to interview anyone from the campus who’s interested in talking about what’s happened. It would be entirely your personal perspective, just whatever you’re comfortable with. It’s now about 8pm your time, if you get this message in the next few hours, drop me a line at [email] and I’ll call you back.”
  • TextualDeviance, a student journalist, warns journalists to back off:

    “On behalf of all journalists with some sense of professionalism, I apologize for the nitwit reporters pestering you for comment. I’m disgusted by this behavior and hope to work toward ridding the profession of it. Proper news reporting is too important to a democratic and civil society for it to be left up to soulless hacks just looking for some shred of an exclusive quote on a big story.

    Seriously, folks. The Boston Herald? Papers in Australia and the UK? IN TOUCH? You guys don’t need this story. Get the damn syndication from the local papers. Pick up the (terrific) coverage by the Collegiate Times. Don’t assume that you have any business covering a story like this when you don’t normally cover this region. Back the hell off, or you risk alienating even more people from legitimate news coverage.”

    Blogs and social networking has opened up fantastic news sources and unprecedented access from witnesses who describe their experiences of  horrific events on the Web. They may not intend them to be later published by the worldwide media, but it is impossible to avoid. I imagine this is a hot topic for trainee journalists today.


    30 Comments

    1. I’m with Glass Boat on this one.
      People who don’t want their words to be public shouldn’t really be using Facebook, etc.
      The point I really wanted to make, however, was in defence of these journalists.
      As I see it, it is a reporter’s job to find the facts. Usually they are criticised for not making enough of an effort to do so, now the opposite.
      As a reporter trying to build an accurate picture of what happened, where better to start than by speaking to the first-hand witnesses?
      Moreover, nobody appears to have suggested a better way for people to introduce themselves to a grieving stranger.
      It is easy to criticise. Far harder to offer alternatives.
      Surely if there is a first hand witness who has already demonstrated his or her willingness to share their experiences with the world, it must be a reporter’s job to try, as best they can and with what limited tools they have available to them, to build an accurate picture of what happened.

    2. Here is an interesting follow-up from the Huff Post, it describes how a report that the killer was a Chinese student led to a ban on this being reported in China, many web links to outside news of the shooting were blocked to limit subsequent details from reaching China, parts of CCTV and the other official news outlets downplayed all announcements about the shooting until they could be sure what the “correct” Chinese angle would turn out to be:

      http://www.huffingtonpost.com/jim-fallows/virginia-tech-shooting-o_b_46159.html

    3. Wow. Of course I’d heard about the shootings and the after-effects but not this side of the story. I suppose as the internet makes communications more transparent and public, journalists and bloggers need to bear in mind how permanent and visible their words are, especially with a topic as sensitive as this one.

    4. The lambo’s in the garage-I got my driver to take me in the Bentley tonight.

      Quite fun to be casting aspersions at someone else’s professional ethics though. Now I can see why you do it…

    5. Aha men sana has parked his Lambo and settled down for an evening of being fed Turkish delight by golden slave girls in the Blue Summer Suite ………

    6. 430 pages of McRae’s Essential law for journalists

      Balls or should I say JACOBS , I could do a degree in law for walking out of my front fdoor if I had nothing better to do. Still why not, you can do degrees in Hairdressing now .

    7. electro-kevin

      On your point CU, I agree with you that the internet may simply be a modern version of journalistic leg-work – but isn’t it cringe making to see in print the sort of approaches that hacks need to make in order to get good copy ? The introductions given as examples here are probably nothing new but seem much more sordid when viewed in the written form.

      Naivety – one of the few benefits here in muscle world.(as opposed to brain world)

    8. Glass Boat

      “They may not intend them to be later published by the worldwide media, but it is impossible to avoid. ”

      This is ridiculous – the internet IS the worldwide media ! If you don’t want your words read across the globe, don’t use the bloody internet !

    9. mens sana

      Can I suggest that he reads and digests learn the 430 pages of McRae’s Essential law for journalists before mouthing off

      Probably you should also read the ethics module (1/2 page of A4) for completeness.

      Journalists as a profession have never been renowned for their good character, and I can’t say that I am surprised by the crass approaches. However there is a real danger in treating this kind of unconfirmed opinion as fact, and in the future I’m sure we will see more and more print journalists caught out by it

      I’m afraid that this is the logical extension of the Princess Di phenomenon. I can’t really understand why people would post blogs or comments without wanting them to be read, and if read why not disseminated further by the media? The truth is the whole course of this tragic event is driven by publicity, which is probably one of the reasons it happened in the first place.

    10. I am with Newmania, my direct experience is that journalists just want their copy.

      they are paid by the word and behave that way; all that matter is the copy and bugger the people involved.

      Blogging and the internet just make their job easier.

    11. “I’m sorry to hear about what has happened today. I am a news reporter at The Guardian newspaper in London.”

      “I am so sorry to read about your friend, Kate. Your account here gives me goosebumps(sic)”

      Do these reporters have any idea how crass they sound? We’re beginning to become so desensitized to tragedy that we fail to communicate in anything like an appropriate manner. It’s beyond depressing.

    12. Alas Elle, A Tough One!
      We like to dice with death
      Teenagers love action packed (violent) films
      The favourite vid games are ‘shoot me ups’

      But, the Tragedy when reality comes home
      and Does it matter where the kid was from

      Thank gos he wasn’t Iraqi or Palestinian otherwise all hell would have been let loose.
      Dick Cheney still wanting to win the Korean War.

      Yet for sure, we won’t question how a kid wherever he comes from, can access guns with which to shoot 30 other students at school.

    13. I find the news and information available on the internet way much more than I want or need. My head pounds when I turn on TV or get on line. It is the times we live in and it’s bound to incrase and get worse. I suppose it works fine for the young folks, but I need some peace after digesting the news.

    14. Ellee,

      this sad tale characterises so much of modern journalism, why do the leg work when you can just cut and paste? Well, sorry, I guess that’s not all their fault, but I’ve even taken to creating characters and stories on my blog, just to prevent my content ending up in the local papers every couple of days!

      I have to agree with some of the people here, unfortunately the students ought not to complain too loudly if they insist on demonstrating their pain and grief so openly on public websites (they have telephones in America don’t they?)

    15. I have no issue with reporters identifying themselves as such leaving comments and trolling for interviews.

      Of course, I could start a blog today and claim I was a VT student… maybe even get an interview out of it. And — sick as it is — I’m sure someone will pull of that kind of scam on some news organization. (If, indeed, it hasn’t happened yet.)

      If it’s on Facebook or MySpace or a blog it is already before the public. Period. And if the content is interesting and tied into a story s/he’s covering, a reporter has every right to obtain further information and push that particular story even further into public view.

      Just keep in mind the mantra of the old Chicago City News Bureau: “If your mother says she loves you — check it out.”

      If your journalist trainees don’t vet their sources — whether Facebook or faces in the crowd — they will be burned.

      Meantime, Ellee — the news here suggests that Cho Seung-Hui had multiple contacts with police, security, a referral for counseling and even a 2005 trip to a mental health facility. And yet no one gave this young man meaningful treatment — although he may have been taking something for depression — or thought to remove him from the university.

      Does someone have to commit mass murder before his cries for help are heard?

    16. I have deliberately tried to avoid reading any details as my form of protest at the intrusion into peoples very private lives. How much do we need to know? What is there to learn? It is a vulgar intrusion on peoples lives in crisis. Leave them alone!

    17. Glass Boat, you sound very cross. I wanted to report on how some of the students and witnesses felt about the way that journalists had picked up on their blogs. Of course, there is no way of stopping them, that anything published on the internet is freely available for anyone to see. And yes, I think the journos will still be interested in this next week. It is a hugely tragic story, and I know Iraq is too.

      Captain Picard, thank you for the link, I have posted my sympathies.

    18. I have to side with the student journalist you cited.

      I’m really sickened by how voyeuristic we’re getting as a society, and how journalists are gleefully feeding that voyeurism.

    19. Ellee, see ‘Charmed & Dangerous’, run by Dari. It is on my bloglist. Her best friend’s son is one of the victims. Send her a message of sympathy.

    20. Glass Boat

      Yes, but Ellee they are communicating via the internet.

      If they want personal communication without being bothered using bloody ‘facebook’ is not the way to do it !

      And let’s get a sense of perspective here – the 30 odd dead Americans is a fraction of the people killed in Iraq today alone.. So it’s not as if the journos will still be interested next week..

      Next !

    21. Newmania said “Do journalists train then ? What is there to learn ,.I can`t think of anything”.

      Can I suggest that he reads and digests learn the 430 pages of McRae’s Essential law for journalists before mouthing off. Mind you the antics of the NUJ over the past week (see Melanie Phillips’ site on the BBC Gaza story)one does wonder.

      Robin Hamman’s post about Dan Gilmor says it all. Opening up the news channels is a really good thing – until the regulators turn up.

    22. Kevin, That is really sick, poor Ken, he suffered such a terrible ordeal, and that lovely woman Margaret who was married to an Iraqi.

    23. electro-kevin

      This is one of the downsides of the net – unedited/regulated ‘news’. I think nothing more could exemplify this than the images of the Ken Biggley ‘execution’. The poor man, no privacy or dignity allowed him in his last moments and such abuse of it by mobile phone idiots who weren’t fit to lick his boots.

      (We had this shown repeatedly at work – I couldn’t bear to look at it.)

    24. Excellent post, Ellee. As one of your commenters says, we cannot go back. But these still shocked students are talking to the world, some without realising perhaps how their accounts are being used / edited, at a time when many of them will not be able to make rational decisions and I find that disturbing.

    25. Do jounalists train then ? What is there to learn ,….I can`t think of anything. Get the information , sift , make judgements …does this require training ?..Oh yes then slap it down on a keyboard.Thats what Louis lane does anyway …( see how I sift my sources)
      If people didn`t want to be noticed they would not publish themlselves there is no more to be said on that . I read that people were blogging it when it happened !!

      Well done for finding an angle Ellee . I agreed with Andrew Marr..the story is big but what is there to say really except all the things that are usually said . You have approached it from a different direction that is a bit more interesting.

      If only someone had had a gun to defend themlselves with eh ? Its a great arguement for allowing the sane to have weapons.

    26. Ian Lidster

      ‘O brave new world that has such people in’t.’

      We can never go back, can we? While technology makes life much easier for journalists (as am I) the trade off is loss of intimacy and privacy as it all opens up. Good take on the matter and I commend you.

      Ian

    27. Jill Blake

      Some of journalists have been requesting input from people on discusion forums for years. The monitors only ask that we usually use their forum name in the publications. So if journalists use blogs to reach people who’ve published their stories in the public domain also then the approach reported above seems as transparent as it can be. I will ask my journalism lecturer what he thinks on this topic.

    28. Dan Gillmor has an interesting post about this where he writes:

      “I didn’t turn on my TV yesterday except in the evening, to watch a national network’s news report. I wanted to see a summary of what a serious journalism organization had to say about what it knew so far.

      Instead, during the day, I used the online media — including the major news sites — to get the latest information, sifting it, making judgments about credibility and reliability as I read and watched and listened. That, too, is the future in many cases….

      We used to say that journalists write the first draft of history. Not so, not any longer. The people on the ground at these events write the first draft. This is not a worrisome change, not if we are appropriately skeptical and to find sources we trust. We will need to retool media literacy for the new age, too.”

    29. Heather, I started to research this today and was so impressed with the material that Robin had used that I had to include large chunks of it.

      I know the pressure that journalists are under to provide quality copy by a deadline, and with a story like this, it is immense. And, of course, the public is desperate for information too.

      I’m glad to know that journalists are double checking blogs as a source of information, it is always difficult after a tragedy of this magnitude. But we are both aware of fake blogs, and anyone who is an attention seeker could set one up, that is one of the dangers.

      I remember reading how police were increasingly using social networking sites like MySpace and Facebook to catch criminals, these sites are valuable sources of info for many people outside the circle of friends they are aimed at.

    30. As ever, you have a good take on a topic. It is fascinating to see that journalists are often as clueless as PRs in how to work with blogs. I would say that commonsense should be a good starting point here, but…

      I was also interested to hear from one of the journalists at the blogging event yesterday say that he has to remind his younger colleagues to check facts with organisations and not just rely on what you pick up on line.

      As you say, it would be interesting to know how journalists are training on new media.

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