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Home > Topics & Tools > Digital Media > Social Media > Digital drives initial newspaper coverage of Colorado shooting

Digital drives initial newspaper coverage of Colorado shooting

By Dena Levitz

When one of the deadliest shooting incidents in U.S. history occurred at Virginia Tech in April 2007, I was a reporter in The Washington (D.C.) Examiner newsroom.

Social media was still a new phenomenon, so journalists trying to make sense of the whirlwind of events unfolding turned to college interns in the room as instant reference guides. The interns allowed us to borrow their Facebook accounts as a means of communicating with Virginia Tech students as the students learned victims’ identities. Throughout that first day, most reporting was concentrated on getting answers in time for the next morning’s newspaper and making coverage as comprehensive as possible for that set deadline.

Dispatches from Twitter:

TwitterReporters used the 140-character social-media platform to send out direct quotes from victims and witnesses describing the turmoil, or included tweets in their live blogs that witnesses posted themselves. Here is a sampling of what went out via Twitter in the early-morning hours from those at the scene:

Zach Eastman @zachEtake38 Twitter
I know I saw one man with blood running down his hands being carried into a cop car.

Jaime Marshall @JME817 Twitter
Saw three different people who had been shot but hear there are a lot more.

Chayyiel Jackson ‏@ChayJ3 Twitter
i survived the #theatershooting #blessed pray for those injured and gone...

Rachel Fedeli @9Rachel Twitter
Our theater: bullets came through the walls and hit some people in our theater, and smoke bombs were thrown into our theater.

Isaac J. Ramos @IsaacJRamos Twitter
Home safe now. Walked home. Thought the best thing to do was to get out of there, trying to put everything together.

Adam Williams @AWWillie Twitter
2 friends lost tonight, in tears right now.

Ryan Parker @ryanparkerdp Twitter
Officers are telling me they've never seen/experienced anything like this before.

This morning, the nation woke up to another horrific shooting incident, this time at a movie theater in Aurora, Colo. How the news was reported, presented and disseminated, though, was far different than it was just five years ago.

Social media, whose prominence and popularity have been building for years, were front and center in ways they haven't been in other breaking news contexts. Facebook, Twitter, chat boards and websites all were flooded with activity from individuals at the scene, as well as from established news organizations. Many learned of the shooting, which took place during a midnight showing of “The Dark Knight Rises,” from social-media platforms or via news alerts popping up on their mobile devices.

The phenomenon that struck me was how often witnesses told their own stories, even as the events were happening. Just moments after the tragic incident, they took to Twitter to type raw reactions, to express confusion and fear, and to let the world know that a stronghold of law enforcement had arrived at the theater. Judging by some of their Twitter profiles, more than a few were casual users of the 140-count platform prior to today. Yet they made Twitter an outlet of choice to share incredibly personal sentiments, inform loved ones know they had survived or, in particularly heartfelt cases, let all know that a friend hadn’t yet made it out.

Equipped with cell phones, witnesses quickly posted photos and videos of moviegoers running from the crime scene or graphic photos of their wounds. These rare images give an intimate and telling glimpse that was never before possible.

For newspapers, what’s stood out about their reporting has been the power of live coverage. In the same way that TV stations kept the cameras rolling and had anchors stay on the air nonstop to provide real-time updates, newspapers created live blogs for a running timeline of the events.

The Denver Post’s live blog provides an amazing collection of accounts from not only the paper’s reporters – who were dispatched to the theater, to a nearby school where witnesses spoke to police and to the home of the alleged shooter as it was searched for explosives – but also victims whose messages were curated. The blog also contains video taken by journalists, unedited footage from the scene and statements of condolence and prayer from public officials. In this way, The Denver Post has successfully managed to combine professional newsgathering with individual sentiment from those directly affected.

Outside of Colorado, national publications like The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times and The Washington Post, also rapidly put up live blogs to aggregate articles and alert readers to emerging details about the events in Aurora. Some of the reporting has been original, while other posts take audiences to the news outlets on the ground, such as The Denver Post and NBC 9 News.

When The Washington Post reported on its site that the alleged shooter had been identified, the story was read in droves. Within 15 minutes after the story went live, 1,200 people from around the country had commented. Some expressed emotion about the human element of the tragedy, while others engaged in spirited, multiple-paragraph debates about gun control. Either way, the newspaper had set up a hub for people to share their feelings.

The timing of the shooting certainly had an impact on the means of covering it as well. Because Friday newspapers across all time zones had been put to bed hours earlier, all of the reporting on the shooting initially occurred in a digital context. For months, newspapers have talked about the concept of “digital first.” But this was truly an environment of digital first by necessity.

Tomorrow’s front pages will be a summation of coverage that came throughout the day in every multimedia form possible. It shows just how much has changed in conveying breaking news to a more participatory public.

First Published: July 20, 2012