Student journalists and the Twitterati: Reporting on the spring riot from Kent State

Daily Kent Stater photo by Daniel Doherty.

Daily Kent Stater photo by Daniel Doherty.

Here we go again.

It’s springtime in our little college town, a time when intoxicated young men light fires, throw bottles and end up in the stir — 53 per the latest count. On the positive side, Kent State’s student journalists were all over the story that unfolded last night. You really should check it out. Details here.

Our student scribes were on the scene quickly, as they could see the College Street “couch fires” from their offices one block away. Excellent coverage — including these stunning photos — was up on KentNewNet almost in real time. NewsNet Editor Kristine Gill became the primary source for a page-one story in the Akron Beacon Journal and photos for that story were supplied by the Kent Stater’s Daniel Doherty.

I learned of the riots when I checked the magic Twitter machine about 9:45 last night and I saw a number of my “buds” posting eyewitness reports. The first to catch my eye was from Kent JMC alum @mjenkins, who is social media editor for the Cincinnati Enquirer. Mandy was one of many contributing reports and reactions — including one that simply exclaimed: “Gas!!!” (a reference to the teargas used by police). You’ll can find more here and here.

I jumped into the tweetfest hoping to learn more, but also to share the fine work of our students with my corner of the Twitterverse. After a few messages, I was joined by two of my Twitter pals who also teach PR, Robert French (Auburn) and Karen Russell (Georgia). While we were impressed by the coverage by student journalists, we were equally taken by the role Twitter played in the story. It added a human insight in real time — another reminder that in a wired world we’re all journalists to some degree — for better or worse.

I learned in a tweet from Daily Kent Stater Editor Tim Magaw that Twitter updates from the scene were being posted to KentNewNet. I also learned in another of Tim’s tweets that KSU President Lester Lefton would have “no comment” on the incident. I cringed, but wasn’t surprised.

Street riots like this don’t do much for our university’s reputation. And the Twitter buzz only amplifies the problem. But this is “news” in 2009 — it never sleeps, and everyone gets to play the game. Everyone except our administration, it seems.

It was interesting to follow the eyewitness reactions on Twitter. But in the end, those seeking facts, details and imagery will find little in social media. They will find it on KentNewNet — the digital version of our campus newspaper.

Last night, a bunch of young professionals posted their “homework” for the world to see. And they nailed it.

Right, Tim?


Links to Monday coverage: KentNewsNetAkron Beacon Journal

Update #1: Not one of these fine student journalists working on last night’s story ever set foot in one of my classrooms. They’ve all been tutored and coached by some of the finest news professionals every assembled in one J-School. If this story tells us anything, it’s that the world needs these news “professionals” more than ever — in the field and in the classroom. They help us sort it all out. Twitter does not. (Opps! One of the journalists covering the story did take my PR Case Studies class. Then he switched his major to broadcast news. Hmm! Kudos to Kyle Miller for some outstanding footage despite that “crappy camera.” I’ve since learned, via Twitter, that some of Kyle’s footage ran on CNN. I’m told other networks — ABC, CBS and Fox — also picked up footage from Kent State journalists.)

Update #2: If you’re reading the detailed coverage on KNN, you may or may not perceive a bias against the police. For a comparison, check the coverage by our local daily, the Record Courier. Stories in KentNewNet and the RC indicate an aggressive police reponse may have contributed to the mayhem. I wonder who’s gonna sort all this out.

Update #3: No more updates, I promise! I’ve plugged in some new links, fixed a few typos and clarified some points since first posting this. You can trust me to be transparent. No one is paying me to do this!


14 Responses to Student journalists and the Twitterati: Reporting on the spring riot from Kent State

  1. Bob Conrad says:

    Well done. I’m frequently amazed at how my local campus paper features breaking news — and often with better reporting overall — far more than the pros across town.

  2. Dino Baskovic says:

    Once again, traditional media is turned on its head. The stereotypical stuffed shirt at the top comes off as being too scared/ignorant to reality/handcuffed to legal counsel to offer even the simplest of quotes–at least, that is the perception. And while it was reassuring to see a holding statement on last night at 11:37 p.m., there have been no updates to date. I’m sorry, but the LAST thing you want are cops and firefighters talking on anybody’s behalf. Man on the scene will get ink regardless, but c’mon already.

    Kudos to the campus Twitterati. Regional MSM owes you all big time.

  3. Terry Fleig says:

    Not so sure that your comment about street riots not being good for the college’s reputation are true. UB gained huge awareness during its student activist riots of the Vietnam War era. When I attended in the 70’s, kids from NYC and elsewhere started looking for riots and protests to join as soon as they set foot on campus…they were quite disappointed to find that things had calmed down…apparently, that’s what they went to UB for. UB got a great recruiting bump off those stories. I’m guessing today’s high school seniors still just want to riot…and whether or not there is any sound political motivation behind it is most likely inconsequentional to many of them. You can’t buy that kind of publicity.

  4. Bill Sledzik says:

    I don’t see an emoticon, but I’m fairly certain I smell the sarcasm, Terry. But just in case…

    Research shows pretty clearly that parents and high school counselors have significant sway in college choices. And neither of those groups are real fond of drunken riots — or political riots for that matter. My guidance counselor back in 1970 wouldn’t even discuss Kent State with me, despite its reputation as a good J-School. Enrollment here went in the tank after the shootings of May 4. Of course, selective service (the draft) ended in ’73, so that also might have had an impact.

    I ended up at Ohio U., a campus that was just as politically charged, and far more party-focused. (I know, I know, that explains a lot.) We had riots every year at OU, usually for no apparent reason, but I never turned out for them. My parents didn’t like rioting, and neither did I. Never cared for police shooting projectiles at me.

    If there are kids who see last night’s riot as a romantic event, I’d rather they go to school somewhere else. But if they pick Kent, I’m sure we’ll let ’em in.

  5. […] the way, Bill Sledzik on his ToughSledding blog has an interesting take on how this story was covered by student journalists and via […]

  6. mediatide says:

    What exactly did anyone expect KSU’s Prez to say on the spur of the moment? He certainly wasn’t going to condone it or say what was really on his mind (“Those stupid SOBs”). At least the statement on the web wasn’t mealy-mouthed. It referred to the behavior as “inexcusable.”

    While Twitter served its purpose for up-to-the-minute coverage for some, you still need a summary of the events, which is where MSM served its purpose. Both can co-exist quite nicely.

    I’m still trying to figure out why anyone would be twittering from a riot zone. If that’s me, I’m concerned with getting to safety.

    Maybe the KSU journalists rocked. I don’t know. I wasn’t there. I hope they don’t have to cover too many stories like this in their careers.

    • Bill Sledzik says:

      Lots of questions there, Andy. Let me address them.

      1) What should the president do? There wasn’t much he could DO given that he had no facts in hand at the time of the reporter’s call. But there is a lot an executive can SAY in that first media contact to demonstrate a) we care about what’s happening and b) we are engaging in the problem and will have more communication soon. “No comment,” as any PR textbook will tell you, leads folks to believe you’re hiding something — or you just don’t give a s*@#.

      If what Magaw tweeted and KNN later reported is correct, the president alienates a lot of folks by claiming it’s inappropriate to bother him at home as such a late hour. Like it or not, the CEO gets the big bucks because he’s on duty 24/7. A more appropriate response is to thank the reporter for calling and promise to get back in touch as soon as more information is available. Then, you contact to the PR staff and put them to work gathering information. If no one from PR is available, then your crisis plan is flawed. Someone must be “on call” at all times.

      I can’t argue with KSU’s statement that the behavior was “inexcusable,” but maybe I should. After reading today’s reports in the Akron Beacon and the KentNewNet, it would appear there was plenty of “inexcusable behavior” to go around. But that’s always the case when hard-nosed cops encounter belligerent drunks.

      2) You are right on regarding Twitter. I love it, b/c I often get the first news of an event from people on the scene. But most are not trained in news gathering, and they invariably see just a small slice of the larger event. As we all know, news requires more than 140 characters. But Mandy Jenkins’ one-word tweet (“Gas!!!”) sure got my attention. Tweets posted to the KNN site added a dimension we haven’t had before.

      3) Why anyone would even BE at the scene of a riot is hard to fathom. In our days at Ohio U, riots were pretty common. “Revolution for the hell of it,” was what we called it. But I steered clear of such mayhem, and so did you if memory serves. If I had found myself in the middle of a street fracas, I most certainly wouldn’t take the time to tweet. (Disclosure: In addition to being partners on the YouTube hit, “Sledzik-Curran Social Media Project,” we were roommates in college long ago and remain chained at the hip because we married sisters.)

      4) Kent student media DID rock the coverage when you consider what those kids captured and posted almost in real time. Was it precise? No. Was it balanced? No. Was it entirely accurate? No. But it was breaking news and chaotic as hell. Reporting such things can sometimes be a little messy. Take a look at today’s follow-up coverage and you see a lot more in-depth reporting and a lot more polished writing and organization.

  7. Maria Boyd says:

    Where was WKSU’s coverage. They are supposed to be a professional news organization, and they are right there on campus, and yet their website has nothing.

    Are they protecting the university or just to lazy to cover news on the weekends?

    • Bill Sledzik says:

      Wow, Maria. That never occurred to me. WKSU does, indeed, have an award-winning news operation, and I’d be surprised if they weren’t on the story in some fashion. I’m not one who looks to radio for “news.” Aside from WKSU, it’s an oxymoron. On the other hand, this was a visual story.

      I don’t believe for a second WKSU would shy from the story because of pressure from administration. WKSU is class act. And sadly, a “classical” act — which is why I don’t listen. To me, “longhaired” music is Led Zeppelin!

  8. Dino Baskovic says:

    From the DKS ed. board: That’s all, Mr. President?

  9. Bill Sledzik says:

    Leave it to a Kent grad to scoop the old professor. Worked on that post last night. I call it “Bad Craziness: Kent State Fails Crisis 101.” Stay tuned.

  10. amandahayes says:

    KNN definitely handled the situation well, there’s no question. But this situation also goes to show the growing importance of citizen journalism– seems both scary and exciting for PR.

    With cell phone videos and Twitter in the hands of almost everyone, how do you think crisis management plans will adapt? “No comment” might have worked 10, 15 years ago, when instant news wasn’t as prevalent — not today, Les.

  11. Bill Sledzik says:

    Wow! Check out this report from Kent State Student Media Office:

    24,249 unique visitors

    35,998 views (usual Monday is around 6,000)
    14,277 unique visitors

    KNN now ranks 5th among the 600 College Publisher sites.

  12. Dawn Hanson says:

    Thanks for sharing your insights on this, Bill. I completely agree with your view about the president’s inappropriate “no comment” response. Given that the event is more or less an annual ritual that always has the potential to get out of control, there really is no excuse for not having a plan already in place for this kind of thing (and all other sorts of potential crises). As a crisis communications consultant, that’s exactly what I help clients do every day.

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