Magazine article Editor & Publisher

Media Lessons from Virginia Tech

Magazine article Editor & Publisher

Media Lessons from Virginia Tech

Article excerpt

Every time there's a hugely important or dramatic news event -- as with the recent shootings on the Virginia Tech campus -- new lessons are learned about our evolving media world. As I see it, two important issues arose during the coverage of that tragedy.

1. Traditional media have a hard time reporting outside of their own boxes, which when it comes to a really big news event is to the detriment of public knowledge.

2. The public demands everything that media knows about an event of this magnitude -- immediately -- while at the same time accusing news outlets of offering too much.

Needed: Reporting outside traditional boxes

Virginia Tech was the classic example of a news story so powerful and compelling that the public demands every tidbit of information available -- and right away. And in large part, news organizations oblige. They no longer wait till the presses roll, or for the 5 o'clock newscast. News goes online as quickly as editors can get it ready. For a breaking news event like Virginia Tech, the web is now the dominant medium, because of its speed and on-demand nature.

Some newspapers created blogs to cover the shootings and aftermath. On the day of the shootings, when the identity of the killer was not known, and details were coming in dribs and drabs, the breaking-news blog format was ideal. News consumers could learn (to a degree) what reporters were learning right away, rather than waiting for an assembled story to be produced.

Reporters latched on to MySpace and Facebook, finding entries in those popular social networking sites from people directly involved in the event. This provided not only fodder for journalists' reporting, but also leads to survivors and friends of victims, who could be contacted as part of the reporting process.

Compared to news coverage of, say, a decade ago, news media have come a long way. ... But not far enough.

Here's where I think most news organizations could have done a better job: Serving as an intelligent conduit to all the information (and "news") that flows onto the web and into digital networks during a major news event like this one.

Let's take Facebook as an example. The social networking site, which is dominated by college students, became a hotbed of activity on the day of the shootings. Students used it to ask if friends were safe, to report in, and to share news and gossip with each other. Some used the site to share their experiences with their online friends. Facebook users at Virginia Tech were on the front lines of a national tragedy, and they used the website to report what they saw and experienced.

Other students and those close to the tragedy wrote about their experiences in their personal blogs.

Obviously, Facebook and blogs provided incredibly important information to reporters covering Virginia Tech. (I'm not going to deal with it in this column, but some students fiercely objected to reporters "snooping" on their Facebook communications, which they consider to be "private" between them and their friends. I think that's naive on students' part, and that if they want privacy, they should not post in a way that makes what they publish on Facebook visible to anyone -- including reporters.)

But news organizations, I think, need to do more than use Facebook -- and all the other myriad sources of information, including personal blogs -- as reporting tools. Yes, they are that, and Facebook, et al are an increasingly important part of reporting on college-related news.

What I'm talking about is in having a news site link to and point people to all the pertinent information (and yes, gossip) that's flying around cyberspace during a major breaking news event like Virginia Tech. Instead of only having reporters digging through Facebook and the blogosphere looking for nuggets to include in their stories, and for sources, ALSO assign an editor to comb through the pertinent social networking sites and blogs. …

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