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.
Interview with Allan Thompson, professor of journalism at Carleton University and editor of the book The Media and the Rwanda Genocide.
The 1994 Rwanda genocide is undeniably one of the most atrocious events in recent history. But during the most tragic, deadly days in the small African nation in 1994, most media organizations failed to report on the events. Even worse, Rwanda’s own RTLM radio station actually incited people to commit mass killings.
In The Media and the Rwanda Genocide, scholars, journalists, and lawyers – including retired Lieutenant-General Roméo Dallaire who led the UNAMIR mission – present their own perspectives on the media and the events. Allan Thompson is the editor of The Media and the Rwanda Genocide.
Francis Plourde met with him during his stay in Vancouver, where he spoke about the media’s responsibility in the genocide. Thompson worked for 17 years for the Toronto Star and now teaches journalism at Carleton University. He is also the founder of the Rwanda Initiative, a partnership with the National University of Rwanda.
You had a long career as a journalist at the Toronto Star before taking an academic turn and focusing on Rwanda. How did you become interested in Rwanda in the first place?
I was not in Rwanda in 1994. At the time, I was at the foreign affairs bureau in Ottawa for the Toronto Star. It should have been my job to go there, but I didn’t. I was not engaged, the story didn’t capture my attention. Since then, I think I have been trying to make amends for not having been there in 1994. I went for the first time in 1996, to report on the repatriation of Hutu refugees. Back in Canada in 1996, I made it my mission to know more about Roméo Dallaire and to write about him.
You’re here to promote your book The Media and the Rwanda Genocide. What are the main lessons readers should take from this book?
People were made familiar with the [Rwandan] media’s responsibility in the genocide through the “media trial” [against RTLM], but not enough attention was drawn to the role of the western media in 1994. They are part of the equation. The international community missed the most important story that year, even though there was compelling evidence of what was going on. In the US, we were covering the OJ Simpson trial and Tonia Harding’s story. In South Africa, it was the end of the Apartheid. There was still a war in the Balkans. When the media left [Rwanda] in April 1994, the killings intensified immediately. In physics, there’s the Heisenberg effect – a theory according to which the observer influences the behavior of his subject. I believe the media can have the same impact. In 1994, by not reporting the story, the international media contributed to the inverse. The perpetrators could act with impunity.
The media seem to share a great deal of the criticism…
Some journalists could do a good job, but the media at large failed to make it the big story of the day. In April and early May, there was no coverage. But in April 1994, 8,000 to 10,000 people were killed every day! Later, in July, hundreds of news organizations covered what was going on in Rwanda to some degree – the elections in South Africa were over then — but they were covering the story of the refugees. The problem is that people think it was the story of the genocide. It wasn’t. We have to go back and look more closely at the process of selecting what is news and what is not, because it was not always logical.
You also say that the media misunderstood the nature of the killings in Rwanda. They portrayed it an instance of tribal warfare rather than a genocide. What’s the difference?
In the news coverage, there was a sense of two ethnic groups killing each other indiscriminately. But it was a fairly organized massacre of one group by another one. It’s still a massacre, but it’s different. Mark Doyle [the east Africa correspondent in 1993-1994 for the BBC, who wrote a chapter in Thompson’s book] states that there were clear references to government-backed massacres in the first couple of days of the killings. [Doyle] was one of the first to use the word genocide, at the end of April, but he started reporting it initially as chaos and indiscriminate killings. The recognition of the genocide gave it a sense of morality.
You also refer to RTLM – its leaders were convicted in 2003 – to explain how media failed. How can we set rules to avoid another RTLM?
RTLM is probably the most extreme case of media failure. It was a radio station that was specifically created to spark the genocide. They had good music, they were different from Radio Rwanda, and they incited the population to hate the Tutsis and commit murders. Roméo Dallaire was aware of the impact of RTLM, but for some reason his mission had no media capacity. Now, most of the UN missions have their own radio stations to counter the effects of these messages. I’m reluctant to suggest that we regulate the media, but we have to try to build a professional media, so the extreme media are marginalized. I’d rather add something than take something away; it’s easier and it’s less problematic.
Carleton University created the Rwanda Initiative in 2004. Can you describe its main objectives?
In 2003, I went to Rwanda as a freelancer, and I organized a conference at Carleton University. I invited someone from Rwanda [to talk about the state of journalism in Rwanda]. We agreed that we should continue to work on something after the conference. He said there weren’t enough teachers to teach journalism in Rwanda. It’s how the Rwanda Initiative started. We sent 12 journalists and 12 journalism students last year. And we intend to do the same this year.
You went to Rwanda to help train media in 2006. How was the experience?
It’s still fragile. The media will report about the ministers and the policies, but they won’t criticize the president [Paul Kagamé – who was the leader of the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) in 1994] directly. Despite the self-censorship and lack of professors, though, I have hope that things can get better. There are good students, and I hope they do good journalism.
With movies being filmed and books getting published, the Rwanda genocide is getting a momentum, but the media seem less likely to point out the events in Darfur. Are we repeating the same mistakes?
We have not fully absorbed the lessons from the genocide yet. At the technological level, we are in a much better position for Darfur than for Rwanda. In 1994, we didn’t have a phone network, and we didn’t have the Internet. But there are still the same problems. There are no journalists there, it’s far away, the resources for international reporting in the newsroom have decreased. There are only four or five Canadian journalists covering Africa: the Globe and Mail, CBC, CTV, Radio-Canada, and that’s about it. There is no other full-time journalism devoted to Africa.
How can we, as journalists, prevent another event like the Rwanda genocide?
With the 24-hour news trend, it’s becoming harder and harder to bring an issue onto the news agenda, but I think that individual journalists have to be more influential. They have to try to make a difference themselves. They have to fight for their stories rather than being passive players.