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The Virginia Tech Shootings and Unintentional Citizen Journalism

I woke this morning to the news that 33 people were dead at Virginia Tech university in the US due to a gunman’s “shooting rampage” . Apart from the tragedy itself one line which struck me as odd in initial report I was reading from the BBC (and I struck, literally, hundreds more when I started working through the posts in the eight hours since I last looked at the aggregated news in Google Reader) was this:

Eyewitnesses said some students jumped from classroom windows to escape the gunfire, which triggered panic on campus.

Some of those locked down inside the university buildings were using the internet to try to glean information about what was happening and many e-mailed the BBC News website. [Emphasis added.]

Why would Virginia Tech students turn to the BBC for information on a real-time event happening around them in the United States? While the BBC was certainly a focal point in the aftermath of the 2005 London Bombings, this line struck me as just odd (and uncharacteristically self-important for the usually quite staid BBC). Looking a little further around the BBC website, I found this story from Virginia Tech student Nikolas Macko which describes the experience of staying inside one of the classrooms while gunshots could be heard nearby. The BBC was certainly quick off the mark with this story, so I guess if students didn’t find anything on the BBC, perhaps they sent their stories in by email or the other means the BBC has set up to highlight reports from everyday folk.

Reading further, Dan Gillmor of Citizen Media points out that most of the news stories on US television feature a cameraphone video taken by a VT student in which gunshots can be clearly heard, but not seen (the video is, of course, now available on YouTube, found via NewTeeVee).

A number of mainstream media outlets have also turned to blogs to find eyewitness and VT student testimonials. One blogger, ntcoolfool aka Bryce Carter, had mainstream media producers requesting help finding cameraphone videos after he posted a videoclip of police cars heading to the scene of the massacre. There was also a request from someone at the Boston Herald for Carter’s thoughts on social software, given that the paper was “wondering if online communication is the best way to stay in touch during a crisis“.

One of the things that stood out to me when reading some of the blog posts from Virginia Tech students, including Carter’s, was how people reacted when their blogged personal thoughts suddenly became mainstream media soundbites. For example, Carter later posted this:

As this blog has received international attention, I find myself wondering what the world has come to. The media watch dogs, no offense, have jumped on this story and on me for, as one anonymous user said, ‘exploit my emotions’. At this time I do not believe this is so, because to put it simply: I’m willing to share my experience. This is nothing special. I don’t deserve any credit. I went to class as any other student would. I just happened to be on the other side of campus when the shots were fired later in the day. But isn’t that just it? What is remarkable about this story is that this is the story of an average student at this great school. Stories of horror, bloodshed, and death are soon to come from the victims of this horrible catastrophe and the limelight will shine onwards, for that is what the public thirsts for.

For those that are interested, I will write a more complete narrative of my experiences of today later, once the media frenzy has died down and I have a minute to better reflect. As of the time I am writing this I have done a radio interview with BBC and talked with a reporter from the LA Times. CBC Newsworld, the Boston Herald, Current TV, and MTV have asked for interviews and further information. As I said I intend to share my experiences with everyone, but I want to reinstate that I am just an average student and I don’t want to be made into something I am not.

Furthermore, upon looking at a few of the posts made on this blog, I want to declare that I am OFFENDED that people are allowing this to become a political debate. People are dead. My friends could be dead. Forget bickering about trivia. Now is not the time or the place. It is the media’s job to report to the public these stories. Take it as you wish. I’m not the media. I’m just me.

A few minutes ago I walked in the hallway of the dorm frustrated with the constant contacts of media coming in every minute. In my arrogance and limited perspective I walked into a friends room while in discussion and yelled out “I hate livejournal!”, which, concerning the current emotions of campus, was not the best thing to do. Understandably, they kicked me out. [Link Via Washington Post Blog Roundup]

Carter, I have to say, seems to be handling his edge of the media spotlight rather well. His comments really emphasise that despite the ideals of citizen journalism, many forms of social software tend to allow ordinary folks to become more like eyewitnesses who are harassed into sharing their perspectives with the mainstream press, far more so than being intentional ‘reporters’ in their own right. That said, Carter’s commentary on the process itself will, I guess, have much more prominence in the aftermath of these tragic shootings. I suspect I might end up talking about Carter’s livejournal experience in a lecture in the near future, when trying to get students to ponder the difference between the initial and intended use of social software and online presence, versus what these textual (another other) online artifacts might, at some point, be used for.

Xeni Jardin’s post about the shootings at Boing Boing has lots of relevant links to citizen-produced commentary (much intentionally so), links and blogs and is a solid starting point if you’re looking to see how reportage about the VT Shootings — both mainstream and otherwise — has grown across the world wide web.

Finally, though, I wanted to share a screenshot posted to the Flickr Virginia Tech Shooting pool. This image is far from graphic, but really hit home because it’s the sort of notice which looks so banal, but says so much. The screenshot is from the Virginia Tech website and reads “Campus Advisory: Gunman on Campus; Classes Canceled“:

This left me wondering, if such a tragic event happened at my university, how would we react? I guess, at some level, that’s the thought that runs through most people’s minds and what makes these shootings feel so visceral to so many people – sympathy, of course, but empathy, too.

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