Media Lessons From Virginia Tech

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By: Steve Outing

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. And create a section on your news website that packages and links to whatever’s relevant.

Take the killer’s Facebook page, or his student profile on the university website, or his MySpace page, if he’s got one. I don’t think it’s enough just to report on what’s been posted to his Facebook page and cherry-pick the best or least objectionable stuff, for example; let your audience see it all (yes, no matter how disturbing).

Did the killer show up in other online discussion forums? Are any of his class assignments online? Point your readers to those. Again, don’t just use it as source material and fall into the old gatekeeper mode. The beauty of the Internet is that the public can — and should, in my view — have access to all the source material. For most stories, that’s overkill and no one really cares about all that. But for a story like Virginia Tech, news consumers can’t get enough.

Of course, I’m not suggesting that reporters change what they’re doing — finding and reporting on the important stuff, and sifting through the wheat to find the chaff. But in our age of lightning-fast communication, news organizations must supplement that with everything they can put their hands on for the big stories. Today’s news audience demands it.


The end of the gatekeeper

Now we get into the “taste” issue. As in, when you reach outside of “conventional” reporting and link to information that’s provided by other, unvetted sources — especially in a horrific story like Virginia Tech — you’ll end up pointing your audience to, or outright publishing, some disturbing material.

In the aftermath of the Virginia Tech shootings, traditional media had a significant decision to make in deciding whether to broadcast and publish the contents of the killer’s “multimedia package” sent to NBC News. It included a disturbing video of the killer making his “statement” about why he was about to kill several dozen innocent people. NBC and others aired parts of the video.

Predictably, a great public debate ensued — predictably, with a good number of critics contending that the killer’s video message should not have been aired at all, because it served his pre-suicide purpose and glorified his crazy ranting. That the media carried Cho Seung-hui’s video, that argument goes, tells future psycho-killers that they too can become famous — and makes it more likely that the future will see more Cho’s.

I’ll come down squarely on the side of the argument that supports NBC’s decision, largely because I think the public has a right to know. We have a right to information about him that can help us (maybe) better understand how the unthinkable happens. To my mind, it would be unconscionable for government and media to withhold that from the public. At the least, we need this to educate ourselves to watch for and prevent future Cho’s from exploding.

But what about the taste and decency issue? About offering up unsavory and uncomfortable newsworthy material where youngsters will see it? Don’t news editors have a responsibility to protect the public from the worst of the world? To withhold the worst of the news so as not to upset people as they sit eating breakfast or dinner?

This is where the difference in old (one-way) and new (interactive, on-demand) media comes to play. I don’t begrudge NBC News from broadcasting only selected pieces of Cho’s video. In media where the material is in the consumer’s face — network and cable TV, the daily newspaper — some self-censorship is the only rational decision.

When it comes to news websites, however, all bets are off. Just as I said above that news sites when covering major stories should publish and link to anything that’s relevant, so too do I think that they should share all relevant source material (in a big story like this) with their online readers.

Yeah, that’s heresy when looked at from the old gatekeeper school of journalism. But with on-demand media, it’s the news consumer who makes the decision about whether to click on that disturbing link or not. The digital-era consumer deserves to make his or her own decisions.

What online news organizations can — and should — do is provide lots of warnings and context about what’s beyond that click. Want to see a student’s cellphone video that she took in the classroom during the actual shootings, which shows people getting shot? (I’m being hypothetical here.) If I were sitting in an online news editor’s chair, I’d either link to that, or maybe even publish it on my site. But I’d make the people who choose to see it well aware of what’s about to be seen. I’d add age warnings, and I’d insert discussion of the personal implications of watching something so disturbing. … You’d need to wade through all that before I sent you off to that content or that link.


Say no to nannying

I realize that many traditionally trained editors will react in horror to my suggestions. They’ll contend that it’s their job to not only sift through all the junk to find and present the important news, but also to protect the public from the worst of the society and the world — the most graphic.

Hey, I was trained that way too, and long bought in to the idea that we journalists served a righteous purpose by shielding the public from the worst the world has to offer. … As anyone who’s ever worked as a wire editor at a newspaper (as I have) knows, the wires services routinely send over shocking images as part of big stories. (During 9-11, I remember how the Associated Press distributed images of a severed hand, and of bodies falling from the World Trade Center.) Editors use their gatekeeping power and seldom publish such disturbing images.

The big difference now, of course, is the Internet. Those types of graphic images now get thrust out to an international audience of online users. You can easily find them, typically, with a Google search or by browsing or searching blogs. News editors can keep on gatekeeping — being our nannies — but it’s now a hollow role.

When a major story like Virginia Tech breaks, media can serve a public service by alleviating the need for news consumers to search the web and blogosphere for raw information about a big breaking story. Online users are already doing that — because traditional media typically won’t, out of concern for pointing to unvetted information or to disturbing content. I say, get over that. Why not provide that service for them, and thus become more relevant to the digital news consumer.

The world has become a different place — where information (no matter how disturbing) now has fast and easy channels to a wide audience.

As I see it, news organizations need to adapt to this new reality. They can best do so by being the place where people looking for news go to find it in all its forms — from professionally vetted and digested traditional news, to raw information from untested sources (eyewitnesses, bloggers, social-networking users, etc.).

News media’s new job is to offer up all that’s now available about the big stories, and provide some context to make sense out of the information chaos. It’s an expansion of news organizations’ role. Let’s get to it — rather than let Google do a better job in what should be media’s role.

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