Amid Va. Tech horror: experiencing, not just getting, the news

Sunday, April 22, 2007

Images of the terror, death and grief at Virginia Tech would be expected to linger with Americans for a long time. Think “Columbine” — then consider all that this single word still conjures up, many years after the 1999 high school shooting rampage there.

But something will be different this time about our collective memories: Our “24/7,” transparent, high-tech communications era is bringing us “reality” from Blacksburg as never before. The sounds of gunfire, caught on cell-phone video. The sights of armed police and emergency personnel running, pointing, searching. The anguish and pain of students mere moments after reaching safety.

Thousands of pages of reaction, comment and new information, according to news reports, were available within 48 hours on social-networking sites like and MySpace. Web sites like Gateway Pundit assembled photos and huge amounts of information about the victims, including video tributes, personal notes and athletic and academic awards.

From a variety of online and regular media, we can learn that one young man killed was a member of a Detroit Tigers Internet fan group, that another recently wrote a thank-you note to volunteers who had planted trees, and that yet another was a member of a campus dance troupe.

Such marvelous minutiae of everyday life gave humanity to what could have been a cold list of names. Then there were the messages from friends — which in an earlier era would not have reached the world. One reads simply, after a name, “We miss you. We love you. RIP.”

We knew more, and knew it faster, about the shooter, 23-year-old Cho Seung-Hui, even as authorities began trying to answer that most basic question: “Why?” The killer sent a package to NBC News, apparently in the two hours between the first pair of killings and the final shooting spree in a classroom building. We can see, via video files in the package, Cho talking into the camera, mumbling and spouting a “manifesto” about his hatred and what “we” supposedly made him do. (As has happened in the past, the decision to broadcast a small portion of the material has drawn criticism.)

Even mainstream news operations — as the traditional force of anchors, news crews and reporters surged to the Blacksburg campus — sought as never before video contributions from those with firsthand experiences. Two students from Sweden provided a cable network with amazing scenes of students at windows of the classroom building, reportedly taken even as the final shots were being fired at victims.

In early evaluations:

  • This unprecedented new method of garnering news and information seemed largely not to cross an undefined “line of excess,” though some students wished aloud that small gatherings on campus could be excused from the media’s attention. Identification of the dead and wounded was withheld until families were notified. Analysts raised questions about how police and campus officials responded, but networks also showed the university president receiving an ovation at the start of a memorial service.

  • Blogs provided a new-age supplement to the candlelight vigils and posted expressions of sorrow, and a means for citizens and journalists alike to talk to each other as never before about campus security, gun control and mental health.

  • A story April 18 in the Los Angeles Times reported that the student-run news operations at Virginia Tech out-reported the major media on much of the initial news — and did so with professionalism, sensitivity and a thoroughness to which any news organization should aspire. Collegiate Times Editor in Chief Amie Steele was a steady, informed presence on network television. Via the Web, student media instantly had a worldwide audience — at one point overloading their computer capabilities. The front-page headline in the student paper spoke for a campus and to a nation: “Heartache.”

    It’s much too soon to assess the full impact of this new combination of mainstream media and dramatic and personal ways of experiencing — not just receiving — the news. Will it have a calming effect, dispersing rumors and balancing out erroneous reports? Could it spark even more scrutiny — and disciplinary action — in schools against students who are different, who don’t “fit in?” Already at the University of Colorado, a student has been arrested because he allegedly “made comments about understanding how someone could kill 32 people,” police said.

    The nation’s founders operated on the idea that a free press was a freedom that belonged to everyone, not — as legendary writer A.J. Liebling famously remarked — just “to the man who owns one.” Thanks to cell phones, video files and the Web, that expansive vision from more than 200 years ago has come to fruition in the early 21st century.

    Gene Policinski is vice president and executive director of the First Amendment Center, 1101 Wilson Blvd., Arlington, VA 22209. E-mail: