One of the livejournal blogs I found yesterday and linked to from here contains the account of Kate, written by her friend Paul, and tells how a gunman entered her classroom at Norris Hall and began shooting. After the gunman left, Kate and other students barracaded the door in a successful attempt to keep him from returning, which he apparently tried to do. The account, like the shootings themselves, is horrific and shocking. It’s also formed part of the story of the day as told by the World’s media (see image from ABC coverage to left).
Journalists are increasingly aware of, and willing to use, social networking sites and blogs to find contacts, context and content for their stories. The livejournal post has obvious value to news organisations. It describes scenes from a classroom as seen by one of the victims of the shooting. I linked to it from my blog and emailed it, along with other links, on to colleagues at BBC News Online and BBC Radio 5 Live.
I was then asked by them to approach Paul, the author of the post, to try to confirm that the post was true as we believed it to be. I tried to send him an instant message via AIM but his status was set to idle and he didn’t respond. My approach was, I think, professional and sensitive but now, after seeing the way the press descended upon him, I wonder if I should have made that approach, primarily for confirmation purposes, at all. Maybe we could have simply said that there was a post, here is what it said, and that we have no way of knowing whether it was from a legitimate source – which is effectively what BBC News 24 did when they read out part of the post on air a short while after I tried to make contact with Paul.
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:
Several livejournal users questioned the approaches above, saying:
“I really don’t know what else to say except it’s kind of disgusting how news people are jumping down your throat.”
“Good God, people, is it all just about getting that exclusive? You people are freaking vampires. leave these people alone and let them grieve in peace. You make me sick.”
“I cannot believe how quickly the media has already descended on you! Too bad you and the other bloggers are, as usual, doing their jobs for them. Please keep posting, and don’t let the media swarm get to you. “
This didn’t put the media off the scent of a good source though and was followed by still more media approaches:
A few livejournal users weighed in to pass comment on the media’s clumsy approaches with a user, who posted anonymously, possibly saying it best:
“…I also have mixed feelings about having read your blog. On the one hand, I enjoyed being able to cut through the media bullshit and read about the day from your perspective. I read your entry aloud to my roommates since I thought it sounded so much like what would happen at our house. On the other hand, the only thing sicker than what happened today is the way the news outlets are going about contacting VT students. Although you have a public blog, how were you to know that it would attract so much attention? I am really disheartened by their insincere sounding messages and attempts to get the authenticity that your LJ already has, just by virtue of you being an individual in a truly horrible situation.
As a Canadian, I am appalled at the behaviour of the CBC. I will be writing a complaint regarding the language they have used in trying to collect first-hand stories from people. One woman on facebook opened her post in a VT Memorial Thread by saying “I see I’m not the only one addicted to facebook! hahaha” … This is a disgrace. The people you are trying to contact have been directly affected by one of the most frightening and horrific events of our time.
Sorry for the rant… I am just so sad over the whole thing, and to see the news organization I trust behaving so disgustingly makes it even worse….”
But, still, the journos kept on coming…
TextualDeviance, a student journalist, apologised on behalf of the “nitwit reporters”:
“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.”
TextualDeviance has quite a good post on how the media should have, in his or her mind, covered this story – by linking:
“As awful as this event is, it amazes me that the students and student journalists at this school have done a better job of covering it than the mainstream media have, by not only being more on top of it, but by integrating content from multiple sources into a cohesive, continually updated story that still manages to be journalistic despite much of its amateur origins. The paper’s site has become basically a blog about the event, with news as it comes in.”
The most recent comment on the LiveJournal post is from Hannah in Australia who writes:
“This is so tragic, and I’m so amazed by how brave Kate was and I wish you both the best.
God, if only there was some kind of a media block on LJ, huh? My thoughts are with everyone who was affected by this.”
The clumsy approaches made by journalists is bound to happen again, perhaps even worse, the next time a big story or tragic event takes place. Journalists have figured out that the internet is full of good contacts for stories, context for reports and content that can be mentioned in articles or read out or played on air. Blog posts are, as the LiveJournal post I’ve written about above, out there in the public and, as such, there is no reason why the media shouldn’t find, link to and quote from them.
But yesterday’s events, and the ensuing media frenzy in the comments of a LiveJournal user and elsewhere, show that where mainstream media does use – and yes, that word was chosen deliberately – content created by bloggers, that the journalists, researchers and reporters do it with sensitivity.
Think when you link. Understand that some content published in public was never intended to be seen by a mass audience.
I am struggling now to justify making my own approach to Paul, which I made to confirm the information in his post rather than in an attempt to gain further or exclusive access to him. Maybe we would have been better of simply linking with a disclaimer that the account hadn’t been verified and doing what an anonymous poster on Paul’s post suggested mainstream media do when horrible events like this occur:
“…Get the damn syndication from the local papers. Pick up the (terrific) coverage by the Collegiate Times…”
Unsubstantiated rumour should never be presented as fact by news organisations but, perhaps, it’s just fine to link to it so long as we add clear disclaimers. Surely that’s better than dozens of journalists, researchers and reporters contacting the same student, who, along with his girlfriend, is likely to take months or years to fully understand the emotional and psychological effects of yesterday’s tragic events. Must we really add a chorus of voices shouting “give us your story, give us your story” to the horrorific memories they’ll have of yesterday?
Next time something horrific like this happens, I hope more of us take the time to carefully consider whether the content we’ve found online was ever intended to be seen by a wider audience and if any harm could be done by exposing it to that audience – and then, rather than seeking access, we link, quote and clearly disclaim. It’s not a world exclusive or a front page by-line, but there is, as ever, value in making the link.
(Related: See Robert Andrews article, Reporters turn to blogs for shooting witnesses, on Journalism.co.uk)