Technology and Mourning at Virginia Tech Online communities and photo-sharing sites have played a prominent role in coverage of the recent Virginia Tech tragedy. Internet consultant Gary Dauphin talks to Farai Chideya about the benefits and pitfalls of weaving Internet media into conventional news coverage.
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Technology and Mourning at Virginia Tech

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Technology and Mourning at Virginia Tech

Technology and Mourning at Virginia Tech

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FARAI CHIDEYA, host:

I'm Farai Chideya and this is NEWS & NOTES.

News organizations have cautiously released names of victims in the Virginia Tech shooting. But anyone with an account on Web-based communities like Flickr, Facebook, or MySpace could see a much longer unofficial roster of the dead. Plus, major TV news outlets replayed amateur video taken from a cell-phone camera.

How and why do we use technology in a time of grief? Gary Dauphin has been watching the tragedy and its technological implications. He's an Internet consultant who has build sites for NPR, AOL, and other organizations. And lately, Gary has been working with NEWS & NOTES on our own Web site. We talked about where, in addition to major media sources, people are turning for information.

Mr. GARY DAUPHIN (Internet Consultant): Almost anywhere that there are large groups of students - obviously the Virginia Tech community where the folks who have experienced this firsthand - and students went out to the places that they frequent online such as, let's say, MySpace, Facebook, photo-sharing sites such as Flickr, to tell their stories.

And I think that you saw a lot of people who were using, let's say, instant messaging who were still trapped within the campus were also sharing that information. And some folks, I think, took transcripts of instant message conversations and put them on their personal pages. So anywhere that you saw large groups of young people, the story was being retold in real-time there.

CHIDEYA: So are there any concerns that we should have, as people who are watching the story unfold, what you see on a community Web site may not be accurate or maybe that's even exploitative of other people's grief?

Mr. DAUPHIN: Not to apply the rules of the market to a tragedy, but, you know, buyer beware applies for information as well as anything else. You know, news organizations have responsibilities not only go live with stories that they know to be true but that they can independently confirm. And you can't really do that with a Web site. All you know is that somebody put a page up and said, hey, this happened to me.

So obviously an individual posting to, let's say, MySpace or Facebook has different sort of obligations than we do or that news organizations do. But as the amplifier, you should really be careful to couch the information as what is it, which is this is an unconfirmed piece of content, let's say, that we've found on a Web site.

CHIDEYA: When you talk about amplifier, I'm assuming that you're meaning anyone who takes something that already exist on the Web or even on TV and then replicates it and passes it on.

Mr. DAUPHIN: Well, you know, there's a myth about the Internet, that somebody puts something out there and through this sort of magic of the commons, through mass forwarding, it goes from being anonymous to ubiquitous. What actually happens I think much more often is that somebody who's got access to a distribution network - whether it's a radio show, a cable network, a newspaper - finds something, and they in turn amplify it.

And there's a sort of retro-circle where the more people hear about something, the more people hear about it again. So when you're sitting in the amplifier slot, I think it's important to take your time and to be careful that people know what it is that you're amplifying: You're not necessarily implying facts as you're implying a story.

CHIDEYA: I have noticed that E.R. Web(ph), which is an entertainment listserv and Web site, did a whole article on the African-American student who is confirmed to have been killed. And it seems to me that what's happening in addition to everything else is that there's sort of segmentation.

It's like somebody is focusing on, you know, maybe someone who was a football teammate. Someone's focusing on the African-American student. Someone may have focused on the woman who appears to have been involved in a domestic dispute and who was killed. And the Internet is kind of focused on pulling out information in addition to, I guess, aggregating information.

Mr. DAUPHIN: Right. And you know that's how it should be. I mean, if you're a sports site or you're in an African-American site or let's say you're a feminist blog, you will find different hooks into the story. I think that one of the things that we should be careful about is that that kind of segmentation, let's say, on the Web side or on the production side; but on the consumer side, you could very easily go from E.R. Web to the sports story to the feminist story that talks about the domestic violence issue.

And so people are fairly unexpected in terms of their surfing habits. So just because there's that kind of, let's say, vertical segmentation, it doesn't mean that consumers don't ride across the top.

CHIDEYA: So on television and radio, including NPR, we saw and heard the camera phone audio and video.

Mr. DAUPHIN: Right.

CHIDEYA: Is this part of a growing trend towards eyewitness citizen journalism?

Mr. DAUPHIN: Absolutely. I think that there are so many ways for individuals to immediately capture, let's say, raw materials - whether it's like cell-phone video, cell-phone photos, camera phones - and immediately publish them that it's only natural that, you know, these amplifiers that we've talked about will use these things.

I think that people respond very strongly to an unmediated video stream because it puts you there in a way that a reported piece doesn't. I mean you know that there's a, you know, there's this some kid who was hiding somewhere, who stuck his camera phone out of the window and took that picture and, as a viewer, you're positioned a little bit differently than let's say if you watch, you know, CNN set up of the same event, or the same place.

So there's definitely a trend towards that. Not to be cynical about it, there's also the problem that, you know, there's more time, there's news in any given moment. So these amplifiers, these networks are desperate for things to show people. I mean people come to CNN - they want to see something. And if you actually don't have anything, it's great to be able to put up that information. But, obviously, it doesn't come to the same process, the same vetting, the same thinking that as fully reporter piece does. So again, consumers have to be a little bit careful.

CHIDEYA: Great advice, Gary. Thank you so much.

Mr. DAUPHIN: Thanks for having me.

CHIDEYA: Internet consultant Gary Dauphin is working with NEWS & NOTES on our Web site. He's also chief technologist for the Haran(ph) Collective, an organization serving the needs of literary magazines in sub-Saharan Africa, India and the U.S. For a look at some of the ways family members and survivors have used the Internet to tell the story of the tragic events, visit NEWS & NOTES at npr.org.

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