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Reporting on Tragedy in the Digital Age

On April 20th, 1999 America was glued to their television screens as the horrific events of a school shooting unfolded in front of their very eyes. The third deadliest school shooting in U.S. history, Columbine High School was the center of attention, debate, and reflection for months after the shooting occurred. The tragedy spawned stricter safety regimes in public schools across the country, and opened up the debate on gun control laws, as well as the role that video games, violence in the media, and bullies have in the environments of children. While the coverage of the shooting was nearly constant by network news stations, there was no inside footage of the shooting, although plenty of testimony after the tragedy had occurred and the situation had begun to sink into peoples heads.
Now, in 2007, the 1991 Texas shooting of 23 people in a cafeteria becomes the second deadliest mass shooting in U.S. history. The shootings, Monday at Virginia Tech. claimed the lives of 32 people and the gunman. The attack came in two waves, the first on the fourth floor of West Ambler Johnston, a coed dorm where two people were killed. The second occurred in a classroom building, Norris Hall, around two hours later, where at least 26 people were hurt and 30 people and shooter died, according to the Associated Press.
The information on the massacre is beginning to come to the eyes of the public and the police, although the motive for the shooting is unclear, though rumors of an allegedly unfaithful girlfriend have been flying through message boards discussing the issue. It is also unclear what exactly the shooter was doing in the time between the attacks.
The name of the shooter, Cho Seung-Hui, 23, a Virginia Tech senior, was released Tuesday. News outlets like AOL have a number of articles reporting on the related topics, and have released a profile of the shooter for curious members of the public.
The coverage of this story is nearly impossible to escape, as it is being covered by nearly every sort of media outlet, including popular, generally non-news radio stations like KDWB. Headlines of the tragedy were on a number of international papers, according to AOL.com.
While the coverage of such tragedy is normal for news outlets to disseminate important information that is valuable to the public, this particular story seems to be covered unlike other tragedies like this in the past. Columbine was heavily covered by the media, and heavily discussed by news anchors like spectators, although, the Virginia Tech shootings have been covered for possibly the first time in a very intimate way unlike most news stories.
The story running in most papers is the article by the Associated Press, and ran on page six of the Minnesota Daily, as well as on AOL.com, and countless other news outlets. The information is much the same, with minor quotes being added as they come in, or details of wounded continue to be published. It is interesting to note that while the coverage of the story was on the front page of the Twin cities two local papers, the Star Tribune and the Pioneer Press, the Minnesota Daily made the decision to not cover the story at all on their front page, and instead run it as the main story for the Nation section. The University is one of the largest urban campuses in the country, and discussion of the tragedy has been all over campus since the news broke.
The new aspect to the coverage; however, is the addition of videos from Virginia Tech students’ cell phones, and the discussions and groups appearing on peer to peer networking sites like Facebook.com or Myspace.com, both popular sites for college students. Webcam streaming footage of the carnage was also played over the internet as the attack was occurring in Norris Hall giving the coverage of the story an almost eerily close feeling.
The interactivity of the internet and the appetite the public has for information on the tragedy has resulted in many differing accounts of the shooting, as well as a high level of personal impact being reported in the first days after the shooting. Such an account can be found in the Associated Press article, where the escape of some of the students is described, as is the sacrifice of his teacher, in an almost cinematic type light:
“’I must've been the eighth or ninth person who jumped, and I think I was the last,’ said Calhoun, of Waynesboro, Va. He landed in a bush and ran.
Calhoun said that the two students behind him were shot, but that he believed they survived. Just before he climbed out the window, Calhoun said, he turned to look at his professor, who had stayed behind, apparently to prevent the gunman from opening the door.
The instructor was killed, Calhoun said.?
The popularity of this story reaches far beyond college campuses, and into the White House, President Bush has issued his condolences, and will attend convocation with the First Lady Tuesday, according to Deb Riechmann of the Associated Press. The President has also decreed that all flags should be flown at half staff through Sunday in recognition of the national tragedy.