Spoutin' Off: Technology played a role in covering Tech shootings

By Michael Rau

April 23, 2007

As I sit here writing this, I've spent the last several days working on news coverage of the tragic mass shooting at Virginia Tech. One of the less traumatic, yet compelling angles of the story is the potent role technology has played.

So in this column, rather than the usual product review or critique, I thought it might be appropriate to take a cursory look at that role - the good and the bad.

Obviously, the worst use of technology in this incident was the shooter's utilization of digital media to fuel his own insanity and terrorize us all, even in death.

Between cheap digital video and still cameras, not to mention the increasingly common and sometimes notorious cell phone camera, almost anyone can be a multimedia producer. I'm glad there was a public backlash against the broadcast of these images.

But not far behind is the reported posting of cell phone pictures of victims on the Internet, some quite graphic, likely taken and posted by fellow students. I haven't seen any myself, but I haven't looked. If it's true, this strikes me as being a particularly cold and craven act.

Look, I'm a big fan of citizen journalism. That there are so many amazing technological advance that enable the average person to instantly become a reporter can only empower a free society.

But so-called professional journalists are held to a pretty high set of standards. You can visit the Poynter Institute at www.poynter.org, or pick up a copy of the AP Stylebook to learn more.

How well we uphold those standards is another question, but it sure seems like journalists who mess up usually get called out on it. Private individuals who act irresponsibly in their citizen journalism should, too.

Cell phone cameras can be an amazing asset. One of the very first pieces of video available to news organizations was a clip taken with a cell phone that caught a fusillade of shots in the audio track.

It served to advance the story. It had journalistic value.

Pictures of victims have none. Anyone who wishes to engage in citizen journalism needs to carefully consider the ramifications of their actions.

Another ball dropped in this tragedy was the failure to have a system in place to burst a message out to all the students and teachers, through a variety of media, about what was happening.

The school sent out an e-mail, but wasn't equipped to send it as text to cell phones

Whether they did this in a timely or assertive enough manner is a topic for other forums.

Truthfully, this technological lag deserves only a mild scolding as the curve grows at lightning speed and such campus-wide alert systems are relatively young.

It's available and some schools have it. I'm sure all will soon, especially now that this has happened.

Conversely, cell phones played a phenomenally positive communication role very quickly.

Had such an incident happened even 10 years ago, it would have taken hours, if not days, for family and friends to find out that their special person at the school was alright.

Cell phones calls, text messaging, and instant messaging cut this down in many cases to a few minutes. There were many accounts of kids contacting and letting their loved ones know they were OK even before the folks at home had heard about the shooting.

But I believe that technology is playing its biggest role now insofar as it's helping us come together and heal.

Many media outlets, such as the Daily Press, have provided forums for people to express themselves. Whether it be a profound heartfelt profession of sorrow, an angry pro-gun diatribe, or a simple prayer, I believe that such outlets are extremely healthy and can only aid the healing process.

We need to express our feelings and get the anger and fear out of our systems. Bottling these things up can only lead to knee-jerk, thoughtless reactions.

Which brings up what has to be one of the best uses of technology I've witnessed yet in the course of processing a tragedy. I've never been a fan of social networking, mostly because I'm a rather private person and I fear the exploitation of personal information. But in the last few days, social networking sites, particularly Facebook, have provided a virtual community for victims, witnesses, friends, relatives, fraternity and sorority siblings, and anyone else personally affected, to come together and share their experiences. It's group therapy for the digital age.

To paraphrase from one of my favorite books, technology is just a tool - no better or worse than the man who uses it.

This incredibly tragic incident has shown us some extremes in how it can be used for good and evil. Most of the bad doesn't involve good and innocent human beings being killed and most of the good isn't about helping damaged and hurt people to heal. But some is.

Technology will continue to advance at mind-numbing speed.

How we choose to use it is completely in our hands.

Michael Rau is a mass-communications consultant in Virginia Beach. To send feedback or view past columns, go to http://dailypress.asoundidea.com.

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