Eyewitness testimonies and footage dominate news

Citizen journalists, online communities give unique perspective

Media coverage

Virginia Tech Shootings

April 17, 2007|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,SUN TELEVISION CRITIC

The pictures were jumpy and the words occasionally jumbled, but the most immediate and compelling descriptions of yesterday's massacre at Virginia Tech in Blacksburg, Va., came not from seasoned reporters - but from citizen journalists, most of whom have yet to graduate from college.

On CNN, the earliest on-scene pictures and words were provided by Jamal Albarghouti, a Virginia Tech graduate student from the West Bank. His cell phone pictures of police charging Norris Hall as shots rang out were broadcast and streamed over and over throughout the day.

By dinnertime, CNN was featuring Albarghouti standing on campus, microphone in hand, reporting from the scene as he talked with anchorman Wolf Blitzer, who was in the cable channel's Washington newsroom.

"Let's face it, right now, his material is still the best of the day in terms of capturing on video what took place there," Nancy Lane, CNN's vice president of domestic news, said last night.

"User-generated words and pictures have always been part of the culture of CNN, and now you have these kids today who are pretty savvy - and very good at navigating the technology of cell phones and digital cameras."

MSNBC, meanwhile, offered some of the most moving eyewitness testimony about the shootings from two students who were wounded and who spoke from the hospital emergency room.

"I was one of 10 or 15 students who got shot," sophomore Derek O'Dell told anchorwoman Alison Stewart. "Ten or 15 of my classmates including my professor were wounded a lot more critically." O'Dell also described how a bullet had passed through his arm.

"On this story, the Internet and digital technology have been a driving force like never before," said Dan Abrams, general manger of MSNBC.

"We're using Webcams, we're soliciting any video that viewers have, we're monitoring the online communities of MySpace and Facebook to bring viewers as much information as we can from as many places."

Indeed one of the richest sources of information for the mainstream media became online social networking sites. "There are these communities developing on those sites with hundreds and hundreds of people - many of them students, some of whom were there at the shooting," Abrams said.

"It used to be the case that they'd go to the school auditorium to grieve and talk to other students about what happened. But we're now seeing that happening online with this story. It's very powerful."

But not all students were happy about what some saw as an invasion of privacy: "If this is where all the news broadcasters are contacting me from, stop doing it. I don't want to put my statements in your "san francisco" newspaper or your "UK newspaper," one Virginia Tech student wrote on facebook.com.

On CNN, Albarghouti offered more than just a gripping account. His answers to Blitzer's questions provided compassion - something critics of the media often find lacking in mainstream reports.

"I just want to say how sorry I am for the families of all the people who got killed and injured here. I never thought that this could happen here," said the student, who has lived in the Middle East.

"Usually in stories like this - in these very tragic moments - it is the individual [witness] who captures the feeling of the moment," said CNN's Lane.

"What you saw today with the cell phones and the I-Reporters is the future - and the future is now."

david.zurawik@baltsun.com

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