In the hours following the Virginia Tech shootings in April, people caught up in the tragedy turned to social networking sites, blogs, e-mails and other digital technologies to express themselves. On one particular site, Facebook, pages were transformed into impromptu memorials to the victims of the shootings.
Since its launch in February 2004, Facebook has become the place online for students to hook up with friends, chat and share photos. Originally set up as a site for students at Harvard University, it quickly expanded to other colleges and later high schools. Last September, Facebook opened its virtual doors to everyone and it now has 23 million members worldwide, 10% of them in Canada. But this also meant that what had once been the sole preserve of students was now available to anyone with an e-mail address.
The site was buzzing with activity on the day of the Virginia Tech shootings. Traffic increased five-fold in the space of 24 hours. The circumstances were particularly suited to a world of new media in which anyone can publish and disseminate information. The Blacksburg campus was full of young students equipped with laptops and cell phones. Once police had locked down the area, the students turned to the tools they were familiar with to find out what was happening.
Students in their dorms turned to Facebook to check on friends, share snippets of news, talk about their experiences or mourn the 33 victims of the rampage. Reporters were quick to sign up for Facebook accounts to find people touched by the campus shootings. This digital door stepping provoked a wave of resentment from students, as if the reporters were eavesdropping on conversations between friends.
In the physical world, the campus was quickly swamped with journalists. CNN alone sent 100 staffers to Blacksburg. Students engulfed in the tragedy were uncomfortable with the intrusion into their grieving. Online, it was almost as if the reporters were not just camping outside the dorm, but barging into the rooms and leafing through personal journals.
“You have reporters that will create a Facebook identity just to get students’ contact information, or who will start an online memorial to get people posting for a story. It’s just inappropriate,” Virginia Tech student journalist Courtney Thomas told The Guardian newspaper.
The scramble for coverage online throws up many issues about journalism ethics in a digital age. It also raises questions about notions of privacy at a time when many young people are living their lives online. It might be naïve of the students at Blacksburg to consider their pages and comments on Facebook or other websites to be private. After all, the Internet is the most public of mediums. Information online is available to anyone, anywhere at any time.
But the problem is that many of the young people who sign up to sites like Facebook or MySpace do consider these bits of cyberspace as their own personal space. In a way, the Internet has become the place to hang out for teens. Instead of chatting in the playground, or going to the shopping mall, today’s youth go online.
University of California-Berkeley researcher Danah Boyd argues that as parents have tended to restrict the physical movements of their children, teens have turned to the Internet to escape from these physical limits. Social networking sites offer an arena for teens to do what teens do – express themselves, make friends and make sense of their place in the world. Profile pages are a place to say, “this is me,” which explains why some MySpace pages are a cacophony of design. They reflect a stereotypical teenager’s bedroom.
A teenager might consider this virtual bedroom as a private space, open only to friends. But it is part of a global network of information, where anything you publish will be archived, be discoverable through a search, and be easily copied and disseminated to anyone in the world. How could anyone then believe that anything they do online is private?
Boyd argues that most people who join social networking sites believe in the concept of “security through obscurity”. The idea here is that unless someone is of particular note, why would anyone be interested in their profile page or their comments?
This is a reasonable assumption, as millions of people have pages on Facebook, MySpace and other similar sites. But Virginia Tech showed that social networking sites are private spaces only as long as their users are not making the news themselves. The concept of privacy through obscurity breaks down people who hunt for information for a living take an interest, as happened following Virginia Tech. Students on the Blacksburg campus lost their shield of obscurity when the college was propelled into the headlines.
The instinct of reporters is to chase scoops and exclusive interviews. But the etiquette of digital door stepping is an untested area. Similar questions arise over the use of first-hand material culled from social networking sites. This content is both private and public at the same time. It is private in the sense that it was intended for a specific audience of friends. But it is also publicly available online. This is a new ethical area for journalists. Understanding how people use and relate to sites like Facebook or MySpace is a first step towards resolving these digital dilemmas.
When he was sent to cover the war ravaging Sierra Leone, reporter Ian Stewart had little knowledge or interest in the conflict – until he saw it unfold before his eyes.
On November 10, 1999 a child soldier shot Stewart in the head.
The bullet left him with paralysis and some brain damage. It was then that Stewart, former West African Bureau Chief for the Associated Press, realized that journalists are not passive observers. They are active participants who impact their surroundings and whose surroundings impact them.
In February, the University of Western Ontario hosted the Canadian Journalism Forum’s inaugural conference, Journalism in a Violent World.
The conference welcomed reporters, producers, news managers, media analysts, journalism instructors, students, and mental health professionals. They discussed the impact of violence and emotional trauma on journalists and their audience.
“It is emotionally taxing to relive violence through our notebook, our lens or our darkroom,” says Stewart.
Stewart faced violence every day he reported in Africa. He says he felt a sense of failure as he wrote stories about rebels who killed and raped innocent people daily, while his articles were never picked up by any of the 1600 North American newspapers that subscribed to the Associated Press wire service at the time.
He read from a journal entry he wrote while in Sierra Leone, “Why should God care if we don’t?” he asked. It was not until Stewart was shot that the world paid attention to the stories. This added to his sadness and distress.
Stewart was later diagnosed with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).
According to Dr. Anthony Feinstein, a professor of psychiatry at the University of Toronto, rates of PTSD among reporters are 25 to 28 percent compared to the general population who experiences PTSD at rates closer to four or five percent.
Feinstein explained that for many years there was a “culture of silence” about how covering crime, war, and accidents impacts journalists.
“Journalism is not a profession that is governed by a professional body or code like the medical profession,” says Cliff Lonsdale conference co-organizer and television journalism instructor at UWO. As a result, questions on how to deal with traumatized journalists have flown below the radar and, subsequently, journalists have often been left to fend for themselves.
“For years we didn’t pay nearly enough attention to what these violent situations were doing to our journalists short of getting them killed. Similarly, we haven’t paid much attention to how we extract these stories from victims who have survived traumatic situations,” Lonsdale says.
Documentary filmmaker, Giselle Portenier agrees. She shared her views on the ethics of interviewing the victims of social cleansing, rape and violent regimes. She emphasized the importance of sensitivity toward victims during the interview process and ensuring that they will not become more vulnerable as a result of speaking publicly about their story.
She followed death around the world, producing documentaries about violence against women in Guatemala, social cleansing in Colombia and honour killings in Pakistan but Portenier says she is most haunted by her memories of the survivors.
The conference served as an illuminating experience for journalism students who may find themselves in similar situations one day soon.
“I think that the awareness factor has been left out of the equation for many years,” says Anna Drahovzal, journalism student at Western. “We got to understand the impact of trauma first-hand. You can see it in them, on their faces, in their stories,” she says. Awareness that journalists need to look out for themselves and their colleagues is something Drahovzal believes students learned from the conference.
Unlike soldiers and first response teams, journalists are not formally schooled in dealing with the violence they may witness or endure. As such, journalists who have been traumatized often ignore or hide how much they have been impacted by what they have seen.
CBC cameraman Brian Kelly shared the story of how his co-worker Clark Todd was wounded and killed during heavy crossfire in Lebanon in 1983. Kelly and the rest of the crew had to leave Todd behind.
For a long time, Kelly thought he was fine and continued with his life and his career. One day in an edit suite, moments before he was set to shoot an interview, Kelly broke down and cried for hours. It was then that he realized the profound impacts of all that he had witnessed. For a long time he could not utter a word about Lebanon without crying.
Kelly recently went back to Lebanon to the scene of the incident for the first time since Todd’s death. The trip he said, did not offer him closure.
“Closure implies that it ends,” says Kelly. “But you never leave it behind.”
Now, Kelly participates in various simulation exercises with other journalists to prepare them for the field and the possibility of a traumatic or dangerous situation.
Since he was shot in 1999, Stewart left his job as a reporter for the Associated Press. He is now a PhD student at the University of Michigan where he studies the impacts of trauma on journalists.
“It’s time we do something to make people realize how our jobs impact us,” says Stewart.
As a result of the conference, the Canadian Journalism Forum plans to expand its reach, making it capable of gathering resources for news managers, journalism instructors and journalists. Conference co-organizer, Lonsdale plans to establish a board of trustees to ensure that the forum remains sustainable.
“I think there is a responsibility for the leaders in the profession to take an interest in what we do and encourage more responsible practices surrounding the impact of violence and trauma on journalists,” says Lonsdale.
“We especially have a responsibility to the younger generation to make things better in our profession.”