Journalists look to bloggers for Virginia Tech story

When tragedies like the school massacre occur, the news media are increasingly turning to bloggers for first-hand information.
Written by Daniel Terdiman, Contributor
When a blogger known as icantread01 posted his girlfriend's tale of being shot and wounded during the Virginia Tech massacre Monday, it set off a flurry of journalists trying to get ahold of him.

Reporters from several news organizations, including CBC Newsworld, NPR and MTV News, all posted in the comments section of icantread01's LiveJournal page, hopefully asking to contact him and talk about his experience talking to his girlfriend, Kate, who he said had called him from the hospital after being shot in the hand.

The media interest generated by the blog entry illustrated a very Web 2.0 dynamic--that of bloggers and others posting personal experiences to their own sites and others like Flickr, Digg and YouTube, and having those postings or videos be not only a primary source of news, but one that journalists turn to as a way to get the story, and get it now.

"The Web basically cuts the middleman out of the picture, and allows the people who were there on the scene to get their story out to a global audience immediately," said Robert Niles, editor of the Online Journalism Review. "Of course, journalists can follow up on that, find these first-person witnesses or potential witnesses and interview them to draw more details out of them to further complete the story. So it allows the whole newsgathering process to move much more quickly."

Indeed, journalists, bloggers, camera phone and video phone users are becoming a treasure trove of firsthand information. This has proven true in situations like the 2005 London bombings, where some of the first and best reports and photographs came from individuals on the scene with their camera phones.

But now, more people than ever are using mobile phones with built-in video cameras, and that makes for an even richer supply of information than ever before.

For example, CNN ran video from a Virginia Tech student in which it's possible to hear what sound like gunshots in the background.

But while journalists may be tempted to believe reports from bloggers and those with camera phones or video phones, and to pass those reports on to readers and viewers, there is a danger that things may not be as they appear.

Only last month, an incorrect Web report that presidential candidate John Edwards was pulling out of the race due to his wife's cancer spread quickly through the media before being proven false.

Still, Niles said that has always been true.

"Journalists have always blown the details on breaking news stories," Niles said, recalling that several news outlets had reported that President Ronald Reagan had gone into open-heart surgery after being shot in 1981, which was incorrect.

"The upside to the current situation," Niles said, "is that you can correct things much more quickly. People on the ground can publish the correct information much quicker than they could in the past, and you don't have to (resort) to a correction on page A2."

That's why Niles thinks that despite the potential downsides, it's a good thing that the media looks to the Web for firsthand accounts of breaking news.

"It's an unconditionally positive development for news to have access to many more sources of information," he said.

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