News Articles

The Impact of Virginia Tech on the News

4/20/2007 08:00:00 PM Eastern

The media onslaught. Local newscasters reporting before they could grieve. The incisive power of one shaky cellphone video and the sickening redundancy of another. The power of the Web to inform. A brushfire of debate set off by a barrage of bullets. The Virginia Tech murders, the worst shooting spree in U.S. history, flashed a bright light on the modern news cycle. A look at how this tragedy played out and why it will affect the business of news.

The Gathering Storm Of Coverage

When news of the Virginia Tech shootings began to spread Monday morning, April 16, network groups would have been excused for using a loud war-room phrase to describe their coverage strategy: "This is not a drill."

In this time of unprecedented cutthroat competition between network news divisions, where one false stroke of poor taste can cost you a precious tenth of a ratings point, reporting on an event with the import of this tragedy is akin to a tactical mission.

Decisions made on the fly are destined to be second-guessed. Experience earned from reporting on Columbine, 9/11 and Katrina has kept each news division battle-ready, but early accounts of the news proved that covering something like this can never be routine.

Battle one involved the elements: Nasty weather up and down the East Coast left networks scrambling to shift personnel and equipment to Blacksburg, Va.

With the weather-induced closure of New Jersey's Teterboro Airport—a regular departure point for many media charters—networks were left hustling for alternatives. Washington correspondents also dealt with the nor'easter: CBS' Bob Orr finally opted to drive the roughly 270 miles from D.C. to Blacksburg.

But which on-air personalities to send in—and when—was a major consideration. CBS and NBC immediately shipped lead anchors Katie Couric and Brian Williams south in time for the evening news Monday, while ABC kept Charlie Gibson in New York.

ABC's intent was to keep its franchise player anchoring special reports as they developed. "We had Charlie on while everyone else had a different tier of anchor," says Senior VP of Worldwide Newsgathering Paul Slavin.

That, however, left ABC as the only network without its main anchor on-site Monday night.

With Williams and Couric in Blacksburg, the decision became where best to set up a base for their respective programs at this first time that many viewers would be seeing a full recap of the day's horrific events.

With strong winds whipping through campus, NBC opted to brave the elements and place Williams outside. CBS put Couric inside a campus building.

CBS News Chief Sean McManus began motions for a 60-minute evening newscast while ABC planned an expanded Nightline. NBC turned its primetime woes to an advantage, airing the only primetime special, a Dateline episode, in place of a pair of reruns.

But the competition forced the networks, trying to balance the compassionate and the sensational, to tilt too far to the latter when it came to on-screen graphics. Words like "massacre" and "bloodbath" directly offset the sympathetic words of anchors and on-site correspondents.

"We probably have to modulate ourselves with respect to titles," says McManus. The network used the graphic "Blacksburg Bloodbath" from a CBS.com Web page headline during an on-air promo.

ABC's Slavin agrees. "This story didn't need any sensationalism," he says. "But people are always looking for that extra rating point."

At week's end networks began to mull their own exit strategy. One campus poster put it bluntly: "VT Stay Strong—Media Stay Away."

McManus expects the story to be largely absent from the Evening News as early as this week: "There is a fine line of covering a story and becoming voyeuristic."

—Ben Grossman

Shootings Hit Home With Local Stations

Staffers at Virginia stations were also busy last week, being first on the scene covering the shooting. "It's like a 9/11 all over again, where it takes days before you really realize what's happened," says Dave Bunnell, station manager at Fox affiliate WFXR Roanoke. "I can't think of anything [else] that comes close."

But unlike most other journalists who then swarmed in and elbowed for position, the local reporters needed to postpone their grief in the process.

While stations pride themselves on providing hyper-local news, this is a case where the hyper-local is also global. All the stations in the Roanoke-Lynchburg market have strong connections to Virginia Tech; some keep bureaus in Blacksburg. At NBC affiliate WSLS, 80%-90% of newsroom staffers are Virginia Tech grads, and current Tech students serve as interns.

Even in outlying markets, Tech—with its 25,000 students and elite sports teams—holds a high profile. "They're our neighbors, our friends, our clients," says Paula Hersh, marketing director at WWBT Richmond.

As the rest of the nation's media made travel plans Monday, the stations were already tapping their area knowledge in staking out territory. As the masses started to assemble by the university's inn, the WWBT crew could be found at the opposite end of campus. "We made a concerted effort not to be where everyone else was, figuring maybe we'd end up getting something different," says WWBT reporter Ray Daudani. "It's awful hard to cover this if you haven't been here before."

Meanwhile, the bad weather caused power outages in much of the market; WSLS' headquarters and transmitter site had power trouble, says VP/General Manager Warren Fiihr, prompting the station to operate from a generator. "For the viewers' sake," he says, "we couldn't afford to go off the air."

As the day progressed, satellite trucks clogged the parking lot. Those that had gotten there first were boxed in. Crews were forced to find accommodations as far as 50 miles away. Station-level personnel grumbled about preferential treatment for their network counterparts, including access to hospitals and public officials. "[The media presence] just grew and grew," says ABC affiliate WSET Lynchburg, Va., anchor Len Stevens. "They're just everywhere."

When they couldn't ferret out hard news, reporters played up local stories, such as the Virginia woman who lived above the killer. And they flooded the Web with breaking-news tickers, streaming video of press conferences and convocations, and content from viewers, such as photos of victims and message boards. WSET.com got 400,000 hits Monday—10 times a normal day's traffic—and more than a million hits subsequently. "We posted everything we could," says News Director Bruce Kirk.

As of Friday, April 20, the media crush hadn't subsided, reporters said, although they expected some to clear out for the weekend if no news was breaking (students were largely heading home to families, too). Still, many had plans to work through the weekend.

Crews are doing so with little time to sleep, let alone dwell on the events of the week. Stations brought in employee-assistance specialists, and managers encouraged staffers to head home and rest. Yet, with such a significant story on their hands, staffers' instincts were to keep plugging on behalf of their community. "Everybody's tired," says WDBJ Roanoke News Director Jim Kent. But, with stories left to tell, his staffers are still going full tilt.—Michael Malone

Citizen Journalism Comes of Age

During coverage of the massacre, viewers turned, as never before, to the Web.

The most sought-after destination for consumers, by and large, was the Websites of local and national TV news operations. And early media coverage was shaped in part by that most sought-after source of inside information: citizen journalists.

While NBC grappled with issues involving killer Cho Seung-Hui's lurid videos, citizen journalism took center stage in relevance, thanks in large part to CNN's procuring of cellphone video shot by Virginia Tech grad student Jamal Albarghouti. With all other coverage beginning after the tragedy had concluded, Albarghouti's live view offered the only scenes of a drama unfolding.

"The primary way to obtain the first picture and early witness accounts were from participant observers and not traditional news organizations," says Mitch Gelman, senior VP/executive producer of CNN.com.

As of Wednesday, April 18, two days after the shootings, CNN said it had received more than 120 photos and videos through its online I-Report function and had vetted and approved 41 for use. I-Report video accounted for about 2.5 million of the record-breaking 11.4 million video views the network's site posted on Monday.

None were more telling than Albarghouti's. CNN landed the pivotal clip—with police officers approaching a campus building in the near distance and frightening audio of gunshots—after it was submitted through I-Report. The network quickly vetted the clip, offered Albarghouti an exclusive contract and made a 10-second segment available to affiliates and other news outlets.

Consumers overwhelmingly opted to track the news of the tragedy via broadcast media sites. Traffic to such Websites, including local-affiliate and network sites, increased 87% on Monday, April 16 versus a day before, while traffic to print-media sites was flat, according to online research company Hitwise.

MSNBC says it posted an all-time overall traffic high with 15.3 million unique users on April 16 (up 37% from Hurricane Katrina coverage), and ABCNews.com says it saw its highest single-day number of unique visitors since Sept. 11, 2001, with 2.3 million April 17. CNN says it streamed its most free video ever on April 16 and tripled its daily unique users to 18.6 million.

According to Hitwise, Yahoo! News drew the most page views in the news/media category, followed by MSNBC, CNN.com, The Weather Channel, Google News, Fox News, Drudge Report, Yahoo! Weather, New York Times, AOL News and ABCNews.com.

"We've gotten to a point where, when there's an enormous breaking-news story, the first place most people turn is not to their TV but to their computer," says MSNBC General Manager Dan Abrams.

The Internet also proved helpful in many TV reporters' fact-gathering; memorial pages on Facebook and MySpace supplied early information about victims.

Acknowledging the risk of using hard-to-vet material from Facebook, ABC's Slavin explains, "[The information] gave us context. There were some very emotional points that came from it."

But few reporting tools will be able to match the impact of the grainy, shaky cellphone video images that would have been nearly impossible two years ago. "At any event," says CBS' McManus, I imagine a significant and very important video will come from someone on the street with a cellphone."

Rules of newsgathering will be redefined as a result. For McManus and others, the issue will be persuading I-reporters to think of their network before CNN. "It's not something we thought about a lot," McManus says, "but it's a conversation we will now have about motivating people to send it to CBS first."—Anne Becker

NBC's Internal Debate—And the Fallout

When NBC News chief Steve Capus had to make the call whether to air the "multimedia manifesto" of Virginia Tech gunman Cho Seung-Hui, he didn't have much precedent on which to call. "I can't remember something like this that is unique to one news outlet," he says.

So once authorities gave him the green light April 18 to do what he pleased with the video, photos and writings, Capus and his staff were on their own to make one of the more complex choices a news group will ever face.

He consulted with his staff and his boss, NBC Universal President/CEO Jeff Zucker.

And while the decision to air any of the manifesto has come under fire from a wide array of sources, rival news executives say it would be hard to find a credible journalistic entity that would not have aired at least some of the footage.

"We would have handled it the same way," acknowledges CBS' McManus.

ABC's Slavin says that, while obviously "leery" of the footage, he understands NBC's decision. "I know the temptation they [were] under. Is the news value here sufficient for the damage it is going to do to the families of the deceased? Will it encourage others to do this? I don't know whether we would have come to the same decisions they did, but I know there would have been a very strong internal debate."

After the footage first aired on NBC, both CBS and ABC aired part of it as well.

But the means by which NBC aired the footage in the first place raised eyebrows around the industry. Some felt that airing the first portion during Wednesday's Nightly News and then holding more of it for Thursday morning's Today show smelled of a ratings stunt.

"As much as we all care about ratings, I wouldn't have held it [the way NBC did]," says one rival news executive. "It just tasted very bad to me."

But Capus points out that, despite previous reports, he did not finish conversations with authorities until 20 minutes before Nightly News hit air. "That was absolutely the right thing to do," he says. "It is completely inaccurate to say that we got [the go-ahead to run it earlier]."

Capus also scoffs at detractors of his decision to hold additional footage for the next morning. "If we put it all out there at 6:30, they'd be complaining we put too much on Nightly News."

Speaking from Blacksburg, CBS Early Show anchor Harry Smith says he was disappointed with how much of the footage his own show ran Thursday morning. At one point during that show, he told producers to stop airing it.

"To be brutally honest, I felt manipulated by the fact [Cho] was getting exactly what he wanted," Smith says. "We could have used the tape more discreetly. Frankly, I don't care who else used it for how much, and I take the responsibility for it because I am the most experienced hand on deck. I wish we would have done it differently."

So while rival execs continue to pummel NBC for its decisions—such as its insistence that competitors use a large NBC News logo on the provided video—Capus reacts brusquely: "This is not a time for petty competitive silliness. Everybody followed our lead and showed the footage; our competitors used more than we did [Thursday] morning. We are entirely comfortable with where we are."

Reflecting late last week on the uproar, Capus struggled with whether he was glad the killer sent the infamous package to NBC. "We are feeling an awful lot of heat from that community down there," he says. "But every news organization [ran the footage]. It just happened to come through here. I haven't really had a chance to think about if it had been somewhere else."

Ben Grossman

The Debate In Hollywood And on the Hill

The Columbine murders ultimately led to a push by legislators to crack down on media violence. The killings at Virginia Tech are expected to put an exclamation point on a renewed call for action on the issue.

The timing of the events places it front and center in the minds of legislators for more reasons than just pure tragedy. The shooting came only days after a Federal Trade Commission report on marketing of violent content to children, days after the powerful chairman of the Senate Energy & Commerce Committee, Daniel Inouye (D-Hawaii), claimed that thousands of people are being murdered as the result of violent TV, and mere hours before a media-violence summit was convened in Indianapolis by the National League of Cities—"on the heels of the tragedy at Virginia Tech," as the conference organizers put it.

And a two-year–delayed FCC report on TV violence is daily rumored to be ready to send over to the Hill. (It had not been released at press time.)

Although FCC Commissioner Michael Copps and his ally on the TV-violence issue, Tim Winter of the Parents Television Council, didn't tie the tragedy to TV, both suggested it was a discussion for another day.

It is hard to judge the ultimate effect that the tragedy will have beyond the brick walls of the Virginia Tech campus. But here's an easier call: It will continue to be an agenda-based rallying point for everyone from legislators to candidates to lobbying groups.

The shootings are likely to add fuel to Sen. Jay Rockefeller's (D-W.Va.) effort to give the FCC power to regulate media violence, a power the FCC is expected to say it is ready to use. He is preparing to reintroduce a bill to that effect, perhaps two or three weeks after the FCC report is released. "Once we see the report and get a chance to digest it," says a top Rockefeller aide, Steve Broderick. "We'll look at our legislation and go from there."

Media-content critic Sen. Sam Brownback (R-Kan.) didn't make explicit connections between the Virginia Tech shootings and the media but did say, "It is my hope that we'll be able to develop policy proposals to address this situation to see that it never happens again in America." Perhaps those proposals will form a platform in his 2008 presidential run.

Even if there is ultimately more light than heat given the difficulties of defining violence—Rockefeller's bill was introduced in the previous Congress to no avail—media companies may not wait to find out. In the wake of the Janet Jackson Super Bowl incident, broadcast networks made very public moves to self-regulate after legislators first complained and then brought executives to the Hill to read them the riot act.

Hollywood appears unlikely to stand still for any attempts by Washington to link it to the Virginia Tech massacre.

"I think, for the most part, filmed entertainment mirrors society. It doesn't move society that much," says producer Gavin Polone (Curb Your Enthusiasm). "This is not an entertainment-industry issue. It is a civil rights issue about mental illness, a court system that has gone overboard, and universities under such pressure not to be sued that they don't take the necessary steps to save peoples' lives."

Reports that killer Cho Seung-Hui may have watched South Korean revenge film Oldboy several times in preparation for the massacre could, however, put the issue on the front burner. While none of Cho's written or video material reference the film, photos he included in his package to NBC mimicked poses from it.

Networks were reluctant to address what, if any, impact the shootings could have on programming, but some short-term reaction may be inevitable. Following Columbine, Columbia Pictures put a 12-month ban on the waving of guns in the air in print advertising for movies.

While TV executives remained silent, one group, the Washington-based Asian American Justice Center (AAJC), which bills itself as a national civil- and human-rights organization, was on heightened alert after the killer was identified as a native of South Korea.

"Asian men particularly are being shown as killing machines," said a concerned AAJC Executive Director Karen K. Narasaki.

The group plans to address the violent portrayal of Asians on TV during regularly scheduled network diversity meetings in June. Its immediate attention has been focused on changing the tone of media reports that referred to the 23-year-old shooter as a "resident alien," even though he had been living in the U.S. since he was 8.

"There is a lot of concern about what kind of stereotype this will feed into," Narasaki said.

Indeed, applying an oversimplified standard to anything is a too-convenient, short-sighted practice. It's a concept that parties on all sides of the media-violence issue may find themselves grappling with in the months to come.

Jim Benson and John Eggerton

March