Big Media Blunted by Blacksburg Tragedy

Will No Longer Be Able to Control Major News Events as Victims' Own Words, Images Will Tell Story

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NEW YORK ( -- Whether it sparks a meaningful debate on issues such as guns or mental health, one thing is certain about the Virginia Tech massacre: It will go down as our first Web 2.0 national nightmare. It's the latest reminder that the old news cycle, in which news networks and daily newspapers chase each other's tails until boredom sets in, is morphing into something different, with the story's participants taking their place as producers, distributors and the real stars.
Virginia Tech Massacre
Photo: NBC

You barely needed the news networks, at least until a visual story started to come through -- first, with the picture of the killer, then with his press kit, delivered to NBC.

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If this tragedy is any guide, major news events will no longer be dominated solely by the major media companies and their high-priced talent, who flood to the site to capture the suffering with all the delicacy of men who fish with dynamite. Misery, instead, will now be communicated through the victims' own words and pictures, and passed along on the social networks, where the old media flock to troll for people to interview.

That this tragedy affected college-age kids, a demographic that's already helped upend the way media works, only put the future in starker contrast. The real-life horror played out on urgent cellphone calls and SMS and instant messaging. For more than a day, the most compelling visual image was provided by a student who used his cellphone to grab some jumpy footage of one of the buildings under siege, the blasts of the killer's Glock faintly audible in the background.

New and old distribution of news
Early on in the media frenzy it became clear there were two ways the horror would be communicated. You could have tuned into CNN on Monday night and watched Larry King tease psychological platitudes out of Dr. Phil and get retired FBI profilers to offer up a composite of the then-unknown shooter. On Tuesday, you could have flipped to Fox News and watched Geraldo Rivera rant repeatedly to Bill O'Reilly about the "loser" -- or, to hammer home the loserdom, "malignant loser" -- that committed these acts.

Or, you could have turned off the set entirely and visited websites such as MySpace and Facebook, whose Virginia Tech community had a traffic surge of 555% Monday, according to Hitwise. Some of that audience might have been pointed there by MyDeathSpace, a site devoted to profiles of the deceased, which was often down once the names of the victims began to trickle out, crushed under the weight of the traffic. In those places, through the communiques on the victims' profiles, you would witness the shock of vivid lives ended abruptly. The inanities before April 16 gave way to urgent well-wishes and pleas for calls, any sign at all that things were OK. Eventually, they all turned into condolences, lacing the profiles with the shorthand of a pre-IM age: "R.I.P."

Big news events shape our understanding of media. The first Gulf War made CNN in 1990, and, nine years later, the Columbine shooting reaffirmed the 24-hour news network's raison d'etre. The second Iraq war moved bloggers into the mainstream.

Reporting 2.0
For more than a day after the massacre, images of the killer and carnage were scarce, leaving Larry King and Dr. Phil, Geraldo and O'Reilly, and a parade of pundits, law enforcers, social critics, NRA members and psychiatrists to fill up the information vacuum with a rank stew of dime-store psychology, populist demagoguery and sociological sophistry. Meanwhile, TV producers were turning to the social networks to find interview subjects. One student, whose girlfriend was injured in the shootings, even strived to make an off-the-record post on his LiveJournal page: "This entry is meant for those truly concerned about the events of today, and of course of the people involved (mainly Kate). This is not a post that can be used for any reason by reporters or journalists simply trying to get a story out of what transpired today."

Indeed, you barely needed the news networks, at least until a visual story started to come through -- first, with the picture of the killer, then with his press kit, delivered to NBC in an overnight envelope in between shooting jags. The bizarre communication was plastered on every front-page in the country. But what should have been the mainstream media's way back in turned out to be its undoing.

Despite working with authorities and opting not to air part of the video, NBC was immediately savaged by victims' families and a blogger community that could hardly contain its revulsion. After a day of nonstop video footage of Cho Seung-Hi's ravings and photos of him posing with his guns, the mainstream media started having second thoughts, with CNN and others suddenly deciding they would stop airing and posting the videos and photo.

Chalk up the video, sent solely to the Peacock, as the most thankless big scoop in news history.
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