During the Dec. 8 shootings at Virginia Tech, my staff at the Collegiate Times had a lot of questions to think about. They were coming from everywhere. The obvious questions were about the incident. Was the shooter at-large? Why was this officer targeted? But another question, which weighed just as heavily on the collective mind of the CT staff, involved logistics.
Where are our readers? What do they need to know? How can we get them information?
The answers were especially hard to predict considering it was “reading day,” a day on campus between the end of classes and beginning of final exams. Nobody was in classes, but plenty of people were on campus studying or talking with professors. We decided fairly early on at the CT that we should focus our efforts on Twitter and Facebook.
Why? Because most readers, regardless of their location or situation, likely had access to those ubiquitous social media networks. Twitter is especially tailored to mobile use and quick updates — so it is pretty much built for delivering breaking news — so our updates went there first and were then copied over to Facebook more often than not. As the first panicked sounds emanated from the police scanner in our office, I left with a news editor to head toward the scene. Shortly thereafter, an alert went out from the university saying there had been shots fired. We put a brief update with the info from the alert up on our website. But when I got to the parking lot across campus where the shots had been fired, the attitude changed. I tweeted from my phone, immediately confirming that one person was dead.
Nearly two months later, the Collegiate Times has almost 18,000 followers on Twitter. When I confirmed one dead in the parking lot, I tweeted from the CT account to only 2,000 followers. Our updates that day drew more than 18,000 people to follow us for their information (we exceeded 20,000 followers on Dec. 8 and for about a week afterward, but have since lost some followers because they had no other reason to care about what is going on at Virginia Tech).
The implications of our tweets were huge. We were gaining followers exponentially between each tweet. Our tweets were being retweeted up to 600 times. It is hard to explain or understand just how many people were reading that quickly typed information.
Perhaps no student journalists understand this phenomenon as well as those who work and study at Penn State. The Daily Collegian has garnered well-earned plaudits for their Twitter coverage of the Penn State sexual abuse scandal, aftermath and Joe Paterno’s death. In fact, they (along with the CT) made Buzzfeed’s list of the 90 Best Twitter Accounts of 2011. But a different Penn State student media outlet — Onward State — made headlines last month for reporting Joe Paterno had died. The problem was, he hadn’t died when they reported it. Furthering the issue was CBS Sports’ decision to publish a story that Paterno had died, with their only confirmation being Onward State’s report.
Onward State’s leaders acquitted themselves well, quickly explaining why they published the information and where their reporting went wrong. CBS Sports was a different story.
But the episode shows the fine line that must be walked when reporting breaking news in this era. A firestorm can be started by 140 characters or less. And they are even harder to get right in tense breaking situations.
For most of the lockdown on Dec. 8, a few staff members and I were in a windowless lecture hall with about 300 other students. We took over several power outlets and huddled around a police scanner, 3 computers and four cell phones. Eventually, the building staff got us a power cart. From there, we directed reporters who weren’t locked in a room and interacted with people who were tweeting at us with rumors or reports that we attempted to confirm or deny.
We tried to be very transparent about what we had confirmed and what we were just hearing. On two occasions, we corrected ourselves on Twitter. Once, we retweeted a photo that may have been from 2007. We were never able to confirm one way or the other, so we just pulled back the tweet. A different tweet reported nearby Radford University was on lockdown. The school refuted that, so we corrected ourselves.
Our major reports, thankfully, were accurate and helped the world understand what was going on. We also had to report on the many smaller incidents across campus where police apprehended potential suspects only to let them go. It was a lesson in attention to detail.
As our follower count multiplied, and the day grew longer, we slowed the updates and sent summary tweets looking at the big picture every hour or so.
Two months later, I realize that the most important thing we did with our social networking that day was interact with people. We weren’t broadcasting information as much as we were conversing with the community. That conversation drove most of our coverage. Really, news stories are answers to questions. Most of the time, editors make up the questions they think readers have, and reporters go about answering them. In this case, readers were sending us questions in real time, and we were reading them as they flew by in the constantly updating TweetDeck column. Our coverage consisted of all the answers we could muster.
Looking back, I am very proud of what we were able to do. I received many letters and emails praising our coverage and calling our Twitter updates the best source of information that day. I am also proud CT staffers who were here on April 16, 2007, praised the coverage. One of those staffers wrote with encouraging words while the coverage was still unfolding. His email aided my decision to print a special edition to cover the shootings.
It was an experience that I hope informs my future in journalism. I also know the events of Dec. 8 gave several of my staffers a new appreciation of what they do and steered at least one to more seriously consider a future in journalism (many of them work for the paper but plan to pursue various different career paths).
Certainly we weren’t perfect, but if I can inform people at that level on events in the future, I will be doing something right. This was a learning experience in how to do just that — help the community understand a difficult, confusing situation.