I’m at a debate organised by the BBC College of Journalism to discuss how the Virginia Tech shootings were covered by mainstream media, particularly in America. The email about the event says the following will be covered:
and how the American public has reacted to the channel since.
contact friends and relatives of those caught up in the shootings. Can the internet ever be considered private?
We kick off with a presentation by Professor Joe Foote, the head of Journalism and Communication University of Oklahoma, who discusses how the Virginia Tech shootings were covered by mainstream media, particularly in America.
He says that, whenever an incident like this occurs, the institution where it happens – in this instance Virginia Tech – often finds itself in a state of crisis without sufficient plans to deal with it. When the first shooting happened, the small security service found themselves over stretched. When the massacre began a few hours later, they were simply overwhelmed. And it wasn’t just the security, it was also the administration of the university who suddenly found themselves within the media gaze.
It isn’t just security and the administration that is under pressure at these moments – mainstream media is too. Joe Foote says:
“A very small minority of people contribute to journalism, but everyone is a critic. And they are going to look at everything you do from the first hour – why didn’t you [do this or do that]… and they aren’t just critics in their own right, they are sharing their criticism internationally and that’s one of the biggest changes in Journalism in years… now news organisations need [to understand how they will deal with this scrutiny before it happens…” [brackets indicate paraphrased passages]
Foote then talks about an incident at the university where he teaches involving the apparent suicide of a student. The news media reported on what the University and FBI told them, that it was a suicide, but blogs were reporting that the student was trying to blow up a football stadium holding 90,000 people and couldn’t. The blogs also reported that the student had recently converted to Islam and had a one way ticket to Libya. For days the mainstream media reports continued to say it was a suicide, but all over the world people knew what the blogs were saying – everyone seemed to know “the truth” from the blogs.
So what do you do, as a journalist under attack because people think you are hiding the facts? The credibility of mainstream media is under attack… “everyone in the room knew what was happening, but not a single journalist would say it”
“What,” Foote asks, “would you do?”
In this instance, a journalist broke ranks and told the story. “Of course, it was long after it became a news story, that it got sorted out… the bottom line is that the majority of the news organisations were there, getting beat up…[but, it turns out] the blogs were all wrong. All wrong.” The ticket wasn’t his and there was no evidence he’d tried to get into the stadium.
“That’s the kind of thing that could happen to you… I think there is going to be enormous pressure from outside sources… that these rumours have truths… that the audience will have already pieced things together and think they know the story before you (mainstream media)…”
Foote’s point? That mainstream media organisations need to know how they are going to deal with this enormous pressure to tell the story that the bloggers and others “already know” instead of doing our due diligence on the story and ensuring that we report just the facts.
David Hayward, of the BBC College of Journalism, asks Foote his views on NBC’s decision to show the Cho Seung-hui video and points out that most of the journalists and editors he’s spoken to would have shown it, but audience members wouldn’t have. Foote responds that, had NBC not shown it, the conspiracy theorists would have seized strongly upon that – which is a compelling reason to show it. The problem, Foote says, wasn’t so much the decision to show the video, but the way it was shown over and over. (And later he pointed out the way the video was advertised and the tragedy was labelled “bloodbath at Blacksburg”, etc etc)
[I’ll update with more if more relevant discussion takes place]
Someone asks about “digital doorstepping“: Foote responds saying that, when he was a journalist thirty years ago, when something happened they’d get the phone book out and ring the person up for comment. “I don’t see anything different about a journalist going to a face book page and taking something from there because it’s been deliberately published and shared…”
Foote also thinks that there are new specialisations appearing within journalism:
“There are new careers in journalism developing… who don’t seek out new original information, but try to take secondary sources and try to validate it… There was [in the past] the assumption that you had a reporter [who did it all]… now you have people whose full time job might be to verify the credibility of content…”
Foote makes his final point: “I’m surprised that news consumers aren’t able to discern a quality news product… [he gives example of consumers understanding the value of a shoe before buying it]… but in the US, you’ve got the same news anchors at the front, but behind them you’ve got something of neglible value… [and no one is complaining about the lowering of quality]”