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Web communities drive Virginia coverage April 18, 2007

Posted by Joanne KY Teoh in Convergence, Essays, Journalism, News.

As word of shootings at the Virginia Tech campus spread on Monday, media convergence and user-generated words and pictures came into their own. No question this is a huge US media event. Electronically linked in shock by television, radio and the Internet, Americans didn’t just watch, they kept watch.

By the end of the day, the story was clinically summarized in statistics: 33 dead, about 30 injured, the worst mass shooting in America. Online, communities humanised the mass tragedy by sharing words and pictures. Those who lived through it democratised the sorrow, outrage and alarm on blogs, forums and websites.

On this story, the Internet and digital technology have been a driving force like never before. We’re using Webcams, we’re soliciting any video that viewers have, we’re monitoring the online communities of MySpace and Facebook to bring viewers as much information as we can from as many places.

Dan Abrams, General Manager, MSNBC.

Blacksburg is a remote college town so TV networks had no easy time moving in and setting up camp. The details and pictures trickled in throughout the day, with news wires initially quoting CNN, Fox and the Virginia Tech website.

Watching the tragedy unfurl via CNNI drives home how important civilian journalists have become to telling breaking news on television. As part of what CNN calls its I-Report, civilians on campus were sending their cell phone pictures and video into CNN’s Atlanta headquarters, and getting a good airing.

The most immediate and compelling descriptions of the massacre came not from seasoned reporters but witnesses. Never mind that the images were raw and the words often jumbled.

The earliest on-scene pictures and words were provided by Jamal Albarghouti, a Virginia Tech graduate student from the West Bank. His cell phone pictures of police charging Norris Hall as shots rang out were broadcast repeatedly through the day.

The wobbly video was chilling for its soundtrack. Gunshots could be heard coming from one of the buildings. By Tuesday, Albarghouti was standing on campus, microphone in hand, reporting from the scene as he talked with CNN anchorman Wolf Blitzer in the channel’s Washington newsroom.

Usually in tragic stories it is the witness who captures the feeling of the moment. Citizen witnesses offer something mainstream reports often lack – compassion. In his account, Albarghouti personalised his gripping account with these words:

    “I just want to say how sorry I am for the families of all the people who got killed and injured here. I never thought that this could happen here.”

Now in the interest of “objectivity,” you will not hear reporting like this from mainstream journalists. As news organisations grapple with the power of connections on the Web, newsrooms are approaching the idea of crowdsourcing and citizen journalism at different levels and variations.

As the tragedy of the Virginia campus shooting unfolds, the productive potential of people armed with cell phones, computers and social networks will give us an inkling of how news is turning from a lecture to a global conversation.

One of the best recent multimedia coverage on the shooting I have visited is the New York Times’ interactive coverage. The online storytelling combines audio, video and information graphics to give users various levels of experiences in a gripping breaking news report. Registration is required to enter the site.

Dan Gillmor of the Center for Citizen Media has an essay on his blog as an op-ed piece in the Washington Examiner. His eloquent conclusion is worth noting.

Canadian journalism educator Mark Hamilton says in a fine analysis that this was a new mediascape in action, a potent mix of journalists, witnesses and aggregators telling the story better than any of them could alone.

In Slate magazine, media critic Jack Shafer praises journalists who have coldly pursued the story among the victims.

Journalist Adam Tinworth uses the terms “digital doorstopping” to describe journalists’ use of MySpace and Facebook pages to to make contact with and request interviews with victims and witnesses.


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