Friday, April 20, 2007

Tragedy, news, and social networking

As students at Virginia Tech cope with this week's tragedy on their campus, and attempt to return to a normal life, many of them are expressing anger at the press for creating a state of siege on their campus. "You've got your story. Now go home," one young woman said this morning during a story on National Public Radio's Morning Edition.

One grievance that students have raised -- and it's a legitimate one -- is over the way that reporters from wire services, newspapers, television and radio raided their LiveJournal, Facebook and MySpace pages hoping to contact witnesses to the shootings, urgent for interview time. Robin Hamman at has compiled a catalog of requests students received from ABC, the LA Times, CBC, CNN and others. Some display sensitivity to what the students' emotional turmoil, but others lived up to the mainstream media's image as crass, heartless purveyors of suffering.

Slate's Michael Agger reports that a number of students, realizing they were drawing media attention "rapidly set their journals and MySpace pages to friends-only," to block unwelcome demands for details and emotional reactions that one anonymous poster satirized with the words: "Please let us exploit your grief. ASAP THANKS!"

That was the right decision, but the fact that it needed to be made points out the dilemma of social networking, that it erases the distinction between public and private. By posting personal messages to their network of friends, on a public site, the students opened themselves to this kind of unwanted attention, at a moment when tragedy drew the eyes of the media to their campus.

Robin Hamman urges the news media to "Think before you link. Understand that some content published in public was never intended to be seen by a mass audience." He's drawing an intriguing and subtle distinction between the "public" and the "mass" -- probably too subtle for anyone to expect a reporter hot on the trail of a breaking story to observe, though.

Sadly, this issue will come up again, during some future crisis or catastrophe when social networking once more becomes citizen journalism. But a richness will result from the ability of individuals to tell their stories at first hand, unmediated, and for those stories to link organically, for a fuller picture to emerge.

As TextualDeviance has pointed out of the Virginia Tech tragedy, "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 price of that richness will be a further sacrifice of the personal and the private.

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