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Not a race....

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Chris Vallance | 12:55 UK time, Tuesday, 17 April 2007

Speaking to student bloggers last night about the mainstream media coverage of events at Virginia Tech one or two were very uncomfortable with what they regarded as the intrusive nature of press coverage, the graphic images of injured students/friends being pulled from classrooms. It was hard not to sympathise having heard one major network news anchor begin an interview with a wounded and hospitalised student with words to the effect of , "How do you feel?" But on the other-hand the news is regularly filled with graphic footage, we see similar images of civilian suffering from Iraq. It's a difficult issue, one I won't pretend to know the answer too.

But social media were also treading a fine ethical line at times, with links to Facebook memorials to students before any confirmed casualty list had been issued. Was it right to link to these sites? Arguably they are there for all to see, but on the other hand what if these posts had been, not just unconfirmed, but wrong? Another tricky issue balancing intrusion with the "public interest" and public grief.

Yet Facebook was clearly where most students were writing about their experiences - the Virginia Tech group which had 38,000(ish) members last night was over 39,000 today. Joining the V Tech community requires a valid Virginia Tech email, and there are further ethical questions we can ask about whether it would have been right to join without being a student, staff-member or alumnus. Fortunately members and college journalists have been posting some accounts of what people are writing within Facebook on other sites like this from the Collegiate Times and also on Chris Thomas' extensive Newsvine thread.

The widespread scouring of students websites for news wasn't without it's problems though. One young asian-american's interest in guns caused some people to put two and two together and make five. His livejournal site is fascinating reading Here's how he describes what happened as he was misidentified as the shooter:

Coming out. I am not the shooter. Through this experience, I have received numerous death threats, slanderous accusations, and my phone is out of charge from the barrage of calls. Local police have been notified of the situation.

I'll be the first person to say how great the internet is, but it doesn't give anyone (journalist or blogger) a holiday on fact checking. ABC News describe it like this:

He is Asian, he lived in the dorm where the first shooting occurred and he recently broke up with his girlfriend -- he also happens to have a web blog packed with pictures in which he poses with firearms. On the Internet, Wayne Chiang is as good as convicted.

ABC go on to describe how three different agencies confirmed Wayne is "not a suspect or a person of interest." As we race to cover a story we need to remember that it isn't a race. There are serious questions here about how we deal with corrections in the social media and further questions how the mainstream media interprets and deals with items posted to popular social sites.

While many issues arose out of the coverage of this story - the student online-reporters of Planet Blacksburg showed their quality. We spoke to Courtney, Andrew and Suzanne last night, and we are very grateful for their time and help and their courage in reporting this terrible story.

One final thought. Twitter is the darling of the social media world at the moment, and sure enough there were twitters from Virginia Tech. VT Twitterer Kevin Cupp kept his twitter network up-dated

There are two cops outside the window with guns watching for the guy. We've made breaking news on CNN, etc. about 21 hours ago from web
Trapped inside of Pamplin, shooter on campus, they won't let us leave. about 22 hours ago from txt

From what I know about social networks, and looking at who Kevin's friends are, I would have expected this to spread like wildfire around that network, but as far as I can tell it didn't. Perhaps that's just as well, but I wonder what the slow spead of transmission between friend groups says about Twitter?

UPDATE: Robin Hamman has similar concerns

UPDATE II: Martin Stabe looks at the issue in the Press Gazette blog.


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