virginia tech bloggers: approach and confirm or link and disclaim?

Paulslivejournalpostonabc 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:

  • “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.
  • 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:

  • “please call me, im an abc news producer [email]”

  • “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.”
  • 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…

  • I’m writing from CNN. We would like to speak with you and Katelyn about the horrific events of today. Please call me at [email] so we can talk. Thank you very much and all of our thoughts are with your community at this difficult time.”
  • 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


    1. Going online to report breaking news

      ROBIN on his cybersoc site takes a very long hard look at the way journalists, including himself, approached those who had been caught up in the shootings at Virginia Tech. He highlights the number of news services who left messages

    2. This is an amazing pair of posts – testament to having pondered the areas around an issue before it even happens. Rather you than me getting that close to this kind of material, though.

    3. Cho Seung Hui from Korea 23 year old senior from Centreville VA
      Disturbing our campus invading our time, what were you thinking?
      What could you gain from this heinous crime, what were you thinking?
      Disrespectful and intruding you took my fellow student, what were you thinking?
      Without honor or thought you took that last shot, what were you thinking?
      Written By
      Rachel England, Arkansas
      Virginia Tech, families, friends, My thoughts and prayers are with you all.

    4. Virginia Tech: Non-Traditional Content at the Eye of the Storm

      A photo taken on a cellphone during the July 2005 attacks on the London Underground became one of the

    5. The Virginia Tech tragedy brings to mind a similar school shooting in 1979 California. 16 year old Brenda Spencer wounded nine and killed two in a shooting spree at an elementary school. She said, “I had no reason for it, and it was just a lot of fun,” “It was just like shooting ducks in a pond,” and “(The children) looked like a herd of cows standing around, it was really easy pickings.”
      I Don’t Like Mondays Either, But …

    6. I’m glad you reasoned this through because I agree with the students that the reporters were behaving –at best– badly.
      You and your colleagues knew the crime had taken place; you hardly needed corroboration of that. At such a point, is it really so much a mark of professionalism to interrupt the conversation between grieving friends for the sake of being able to say that you got a survivor’s story?

    7. i have experience from both sides of this issue.
      in february 2006 i photographed a violent altercation between a motorist and courier and posted the photos to a blog-like site,
      it blew up online, mainstream media found it on the news wires, and i was suddenly flooded with media contact. they tracked down my parents and found my phone number, they emailed me. dozens of calls and email. the toronto star published the photographs on the front page of their paper against my explicit dissent. with the flood of incoming, aggressive calls from media, the cumulative effect is overwhelming, and it’s easy to characterize this anonymous entity, the media, as vultures, opportunistic automatons with no human sensitivity.
      however, for those condemning mainstream media for lack of sensitivity (disclaimer: i do not mean those involved in the event), ask yourselves, did you turn off the television in protest when cnn or cbc reported the story in part from blog sources? or did it make the story more compelling and personal for you?
      do you stand on moral high ground because you weren’t the one to ask the questions, only the one to read the answers, to look at the pictures and videos?

    8. Adam Krawesky: My son was a victim of violent crime on a college campus within the past two years. Despite his request communicated to the members of the media that he be left alone to recuperate from the experience, we had to deal with reporters who could not seem to accept that statement. They went through Facebook, they tried to get into his dorm and called our home in the evenings. They weren’t being professionals and behaving with some dignity. His friends and family could understand the need for reticence — why can’t the media?
      I believe the media as a whole needs to rethink their practices in dealing with victims of trauma. You aren’t doing this to serve any audience; it’s to show editors that you’re out there ostensibly earning a paycheck!

    9. Reaching Out the the Afflicted

      Dateline NBC Dateline NBC has earned a ratings hit, along with a massive presence in our cultural consciousness,

    10. Journalists are increasingly aware of, and willing to use, social networking sites and blogs to find contacts, context and content for their stories. Thanks Robin!

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