The crowd reports the Virginia Tech story

As horrific as the circumstances at Virginia Tech were, as a journalist it was fascinating to watch the information about the shootings filter out through the students and faculty at the college, by way cellphones and webcams, blogs and Facebook accounts, Flickr photos and LiveJournal updates. The Wikipedia page was updated minute by minute (the page of edits makes for interesting reading). Another example of “crowdsourcing” the news.

virginiatech.jpgAs others have described elsewhere, Jamal Albarghouti recorded gunfire on his cellphone and had it run on CNN and dozens of other networks and channels; Professor Dennis Hong set up a webcam on the windowsill of his classroom and then streamed the video of police activity to the frightened students inside a locked-down lab; other students uploaded photos to Flickr and their Facebook accounts. One Facebook group set up in memory of those killed had more than 17,000 members within hours of the shooting and now has over 96,000 members and 9,000 “wall” posts or messages.

Several students blogged about what was going on, reassuring friends and relatives that they were safe. The Roanoke Times ran a blog-style update story, a smart response to the event, and the Collegiate Times was providing regular updates as well. Not surprisingly, people started using the Net to search for the identity of the shooter — and came up with the wrong guy, as described by Wired’s Threat Level blog.

A failing of crowdsourced journalism? Perhaps. But as Robert Niles of the Online Journalism Review pointed out, traditional media muffs the details in the heat of the moment too — and that takes longer to correct.


Robin Hamman has a great post about how journalists (including him) descended on some of the Virginia Tech bloggers, and how the “traditional” media have come to rely on social media such as blogs as a source during events like this. Are traditional reporters vultures, or are they serving an important purpose? Should they try to get access to bloggers, or just point to them? And my friend Tony Hung has some wise words about avoiding the flipside of the “wisdom of crowds” — namely, the mob mentality.

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About mathewi

I'm the chief digital writer at the Columbia Journalism Review in New York, and a former writer for Fortune magazine and the Globe and Mail newspaper.

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