Live bloggers offer inside views of VA Tech tragedy

It’s a somber day in Blacksburg, Virginia, and on college campuses across America. So don’t expect the usual levity at ToughSledding.

vt.jpgI taught two classes at Kent State today — one before learning of the shootings at Va. Tech, the other afterward. In that second class, PR Case Studies, we speculated on the impact this horrible tragedy might have. And we tried to imagine the grief of those left to mourn the dead.

Class ended early, and my students walked out of Taylor Hall onto the May 4th Memorial site. Here at Kent State, we know a little about campus tragedies. We lost 4. Tech lost 33.

While my journalism colleagues were riveted to their TV sets, I checked Google to see what role the social media are playing in covering this event. I’m offering what I found so far. I’ll add to it as I learn more.

Robin Hamman is tracking a number of student bloggers at Va. Tech who posted about their experiences. Some scary stuff.

Jeff Jarvis reports (at 3 p.m.) that more than 900,000 people had viewed a video shot by a student on the scene. It’s chilling to hear the gunshots, horrifying to think about the actual scene. Citizen journalists had it first, but that’s becoming the norm.

From student Neal Turnage at Planet Blacksburg, a bit of helplessness. Update: The main site of Planet Blacksburg, a student-run website, is updating regularly.

Tech’s student newspaper, the Collegiate Times, is operating from an auxiliary server. The reports read much like a blog, posted by the minute.

The Va. Tech website shows an institution prepared for crisis, and we expect that in today’s world. But it’s a sad reminder for PR pros that nothing — and I mean nothing — can be left off our list of worst-case-scenario planning.

I’m not a religious man, but I’m gonna say a prayer for these folks tonight. I hope you’ll join me.

Update, 9:10 p.m.

From Daniela Capistrano, links to MTV and YouTube, each with more content posted by bloggers and citizen journalists

Bryce’s Journal tracks the day. Can’t believe this one didn’t pop up earlier on my search.


16 Responses to Live bloggers offer inside views of VA Tech tragedy

  1. Shelley Prisco says:


    I can guarantee that this will be a nationwide case study in all journalism and mass communication schools across the country, maybe even internationally. This is the epitome of crisis communications going into overdrive. This lesson will span from journalism and public relations classes all the way to the social sciences.

    All anyone can ask at this point is, “why?”

  2. Brian Wooley says:

    There were the four in 1970, but let us also remember the gunman on KSU’s campus in 1991. I wrote the following on a message board in a discussion about the VT shootings and why more wasn’t done by campus authorities between the dorm shooting and the classroom killings:

    When I was a student at Kent State in the early 1990s, there was a rash of shootings over the course of several days. A grad student was wounded, and a custodian was killed–both in campus buildings. A few days later, some windows were shot out at an off-campus apartment; the police gave chase and shot and killed the gunman.

    The point of this being, if the police agencies at KSU would not/could not clear that campus (of a comparable size to Virginia Tech’s) in days’ time, I don’t see how the cops at VT could have done it in only hours, with limited information.

    I agree with [the previous poster]–a campus of that size is like a city, and evacuating and/or stabilizing it quickly, efficiently, and safely is more than police–campus, city, or even state troopers–are set up to do, especially in that kind of time frame. It sounds shitty to say it, but those are the facts. No one wants to believe that the auspices of “civilization” under which we live can so suddenly be toppled, but it’s true.

  3. Bill,

    After September 11th, a French newspaper famously proclaimed “Today, We Are All Americans.” Well today, we’re all members of the Virginia Tech community, because this could have happened anywhere.

  4. Bill Sledzik says:


    I’ve been watching the MSM coverage all evening. Seems their sole purpose is to find any and all sources — regardless of expertise — to ask them if they blame Tech police, Tech administration, or maybe even a Tech janitor for not stopping this carnage. Another MSM feeding frenzy, and it makes me crazy. And tell me, is Paula Zahn capable of an intelligent question? Sheesh. They should all go back and beat up on Imus, the poor bastard.

    On your point, you are only partially correct — assuming the MSM got this part right. Tech campus is 2,600 acres. Kent State is 800 — or about 1/3 the size. You don’t shut that down at the blink of an eye — especially at 8 a.m. when the day is already in motion.

  5. Brian Wooley says:

    I misspoke in my size statement; I meant to say that the populations of the two were of a similar size (as I understand it–I could off the mark on this as well). The fact that VT’s campus is that much larger, however, serves only to emphasize my point about containment on that scale.

    As for your comments about the media frenzy… well, that’s the very reason I shied away from watching any of it. Too few facts, too much speculation, and far too much time in which to speculate are the recipe for tedious, repetitive, and no doubt inaccurate “coverage.” Thanks, but no thanks.

  6. CNET offers some insight into the role of social media as it relates to the Virginia Tech incident:

    Journalists look to bloggers for Virginia Tech story

    We can’t begin to imagine what the PR and other comm pros at VA Tech are facing now and in the coming weeks. What we can do is review our own crisis plans, again and again and again. Fire drills, war games: they sound thrilling but truly are the difference between life and death.

    The MSM repeated over and over last night: “The most important factor in dealing with these situations is communication.” How right they are.

  7. In addition to my previous comment, I would be interested to hear from any crisis specialists in Bill’s audience of readers: Do you, or would you at least, consider the role of blogs and the “real-time” web in your crisis planning?

  8. Stacy Wessels says:

    Thank you for the links. A part of me believes that if I know everything about what happened, it will somehow make sense. Brian, I thought the same thing as you. Va Tech and Kent State are about the same size in enrollment. I don’t know anything about Blacksburg, but I imagine it having Kent’s college-town feel.

  9. Bill Sledzik says:

    Comparisons between Kent and Blacksburg are common today in the local MSM, and inevitable given events at both schools. The universities are of similar size, as are the towns. VT’s campus is physically larger, that’s all. Of course, it was a disturbed psychopath who did this in Blacksburg. In Kent, it was government troops. Not sure which is more frightening, but I guess the sheer body count settles that question.

    In today’s Beacon Journal, Bob Dyer looks at how schools must address the stigma of bloodshed on campus. Our own Michele Ewing is quoted in the piece.

  10. Brian Wooley says:

    Again, Bill, it was troops at KSU in 1970… but a lone gunman on the loose for days in 1991. That was a bad situation that could have been much worse.

    The fact that few seem to recall it points out that, in retrospect, it was a small-scale event–but it certainly didn’t feel that way at the time. To paraphrase Tom Petty, we got lucky.

  11. Stacy Wessels says:

    Yes, we got lucky. I was a student during the 1991 shootings. I think one reason so few remember that time is because, in media years, it was 100 years ago. There was no Internet. No one had a cell phone. I had reporting practices that semester, using computers with DOS and printing my beat reports on a frequently broken dot matrix printer. I am reminded how I hated being around the Stater office during that time. The print students were so excited to have real news to report. It just made me sick to listen to them.

  12. Brian Wooley says:

    I agree that it was ages ago, technologically speaking. But if we’re talking about parallels between Kent State and Virginia Tech, the 1991 incidents are much more congruent with Monday’s events than are the 1970 shootings–which, frankly, only have the terms shooting, and campus in common with what happened at VT.

    Yes, far more people are aware of May 4th, but it’s an apples-and-oranges situation to compare the sudden, unprovoked shooting spree in Blacksburg to several days of protests, vandalism, and looting that precipitated what happened in Kent in 1970–I mean, there were underlying reasons for the National Guard to have been on campus to begin with.

    This is the point I am trying to get across.

  13. Tim Roberts says:

    As usual, Michelle Ewing’s remarks were right on target. The only PR miscue I noticed is that one of the parents of the confirmed deceased had not yet been contacted by anyone from the university as of Tuesday night. That must be remedied ASAP by top leadership at VT – and not by the any other department. The university is a community and the leaders of that community must make meaningful contact with the families of all the wounded and murdered students. The president and provost should at the minimum make phone calls to the deceased’s parents offering any assistance and make hospital visits to the wounded. Genuine, one-on-one empathy now will trump any amount of costly damage control/reputation management later on.

    I guess I’m officially a relic, but the blogosphere and the TV coverage of the VT tragedy lack substance, context and perspective to me. They are great for immediate images and basic information, but both tend to carelessly point fingers, use unsubstantiated info and lean toward pursuing news angles that merely trigger emotional hot buttons – they shed more heat than light on a subject.

    I did like CNN’s use of VT student media members, but I changed channels at the first sighting of the omnipresent Anderson Cooper, who I feared would lose his composure again as he did in New Orleans. I spent some time online, but Drudge Report and VT sites were the only online sites that I felt had compelling info. Overall, I found the coverage very repetitive, but respectable considering the mediums’ limitations. Stone Phillips (my wife’s choice, not mine) was too heavy-handed on the lockdown angle – but his hair looked fantastic! He and Cooper make me miss Peter Jennings and his calm, professional aura.

    What I really wanted to point out was the value of the social networking sites. My niece is a 2005 VT alum and used her Facebook VT network to connect and mourn with her VT friends. I’m sure many other alums and students did the same. Say what you will, but Facebook does have redeeming value.

  14. Bill Sledzik says:

    Thanks for those insights, Tim. I’m actually working on a post that looks at the crisis response — as best I can just 48 hours later. Not sure I can conclude much, and may not publish it. BTW, those who didn’t grasp Tim’s reference to Michele Ewing’s remarks, here’s the link. And yep, Michele with one “L” is correct. Automatic “F” to ABJ reporter Bob Dyer for not confirming that! Clearly he didn’t go to Kent State. Tim, you’re off the hook. Spelling only counts in blogging if your students are stalking you.

    Oh, yeah. ABJ takes content off line and places it into pay-per-view in 7 days. Don’t wait to check this out.

  15. Andy Curran says:

    In a situation like VT, citizen journalists will always get it first because they are on the scene. TV, radio, and newspaper reporters will take some time to arrive on the scene or reach people by phone. That’s simply logistics.

    If anyone thinks they are on to something about the arrival of the citizen as a news source, relax. It’s not a new movement at all. Mainstream media has always relied on citizens as news sources. Where do you think radio and TV stations got their news tips? Some were from “inside sources”, some were from the police radios, some were from PR people, and some were from canned events like press conferences. The rest came from regular folks who called the stations when they saw news happen. Many of the Top-40 AM stations in the 60s-70s actively solicited and paid for news tips. A girl in my high school was a regular news tipper for WCOL in Columbus, Ohio. She got $25 for each tip they used.

    The difference is that the “citizen journalists” can now self-publish their tips. They don’t have to go through the filtering process that the news tippers go through. Not every news tip gets on the air.

    This tragedy really showed how many relied on a variety of media. My experience was this: I found out about the story when I logged on to my computer. My home page is Dell’s news portal, and there it was. I immediately turned the TV on to MSNBC. I watche dfor about 30 minutes. There was a lull in developments (i.e. no new info), so I checked out Facebook and found some VT groups that were already active. I checked those out and found some of the blogs that the Facebook posters were talking about. Then I had to go to work, so I tuned in my car radio and switched between WLW-AM on my terrestrial receiver and CNN on my Sirius satellite radio.

    The citizen journalists do serve an imprtant purpose in breaking news and supplying detailed eyewitness accounts. This is a major benefit to Web 2.0.

    The MSM still have the power to get interviews with people that matter (cops, EMTs, university spokespersons, politicians, etc.). They can also tie everything together in one place, eliminating the hassle of trying to surf a number of blogs to get complete information.

    I just returned from the Broadcast Education Association’s annual conference in Las Vegas. Some of the panels addressed this issue of the convergence of MSM and new media. VT could be the defining event in this era, more so than Katrina. College students were the focal point of this story, and their active use of new media drove the coverage of this event a lot more.

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