Virginia Tech shooting: another citizen journalism milestone?

Poynter Online has a mind-boggling roundup of how students at Virginia Tech have told their story through mobile video, blogs, and forums. Unlike previous user generated content milestones like 9/11 and the Asian tsunami, this story took place in the heart of the new media generation, and the resulting coverage is more comprehensive, more accessible, and takes in more new media forms, including social networking. “Look at this collection from CNN’s I-Report.,” urges Poynter:

“Students text messaged one another while hiding under desks. Read some of those messages here.

Some students are gathering on Facebook. CollegeMedia.com has a collection of cell pictures taken by students. More than 150 tribute groups have formed on Facebook.

“Other students went right to their blogs and wrote about what they saw.”

As this generation ages it’s reasonable to expect such coverage to become the norm, and this presents two challenges for journalists: 1) the need to develop the awareness of, and skills to find, this material; 2) in the face of such comprehensive and accessible first-person reporting, the need to develop new roles, perhaps as gatewatchers, facilitators and filters rather than reporters.

Then there’s a third issue: ethics. When reporting on the MySpace and Facebook content of murdered students, how far can journalists go? Is it OK to quote dead students’ ‘About Me’ sections? Channel 5 did so last night, including one who was summed up by her favourite flavour of ice cream and the fact that her “favourite colour is blue”.

Tony Harcup, a writer on journalism ethics, told me “my gut reaction is that it is perfectly acceptable to quote from the About Me sections that people have placed in the public domain. It’s not as if a journalist has broken into a dead person’s house and stolen their private diary.” But when we live our lives in the public domain, do our virtual selves have different rights? I have no answers, I’m just posing the question.

UPDATE: Shane Richmond includes these points in his blog. He slightly misunderstands my second point above, and I’ve posted a comment clarifying this.

UPDATE 2 (Apr 21 07): I’ve posted a further post on the ethics issue.

52 thoughts on “Virginia Tech shooting: another citizen journalism milestone?

  1. Pingback: Press Gazette Blogs - Fleet Street 2.0 » Virgina Tech shootings raises new issues for journalists

  2. Craig

    BTW, its Virginia Tech, or Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University NOT Virginia Tech University…..Never has been, never will be….Just another example of idiot journalists not knowing what they’re talking about!

    Reply
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  5. Paul Bradshaw

    Thanks for the correction Craig. I’ll wear the badge of “idiot journalist” with pride. A polytechnic is a university in the UK, although some people insist on making a distinction between ‘old’ (polys) and ‘new’ universities, generally for reasons of snobbery.

    Reply
  6. Hil Hunt

    Why does all this talk of citizen juournalism make me feel like DCI Gene Hunt? Hacks look for information wherever they can find it. If the neighbours know what’s going on, they go ask them. More often than not, there’s a friendly police officer. Local papers, cuttings libraries, college newspapers, class yearbooks, even memorial messages on bunches of flowers have always been grist to the mill in a story like this. Now people post their feelings and scraps of knowledge on blogs and websites. Go find it…but what’s the big deal? In the end it’s another source which needs weighing for taste, accuracy and credibility like everything else which professional journalism aspires to. Yes, people are recording stuff on their phones and cameras. That’s also been a potential source since the first cheap cameras and camcorders arrived in ordinary homes many years ago. Beyond that…what?

    Reply
  7. paulbradshaw Post author

    Beyond that… well, there’s a difference in scale, and in accessibility.

    While journalists have always had ‘citizen’ sources, readers typically had to rely on them and their papers/TV/radio bulletin to access those first hand accounts. That’s no longer the case, and in this story it was the ‘citizens’ who released the names of the victims, of suspects (often erroneously), and of other details. In this situation, what is the journalist’s role? As you indicate, filtering for taste, accuracy and credibiility become more important than ‘getting there first’.

    Reply
  8. Pingback: Virginia Tech: more on that ethics question « Online Journalism Blog

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