Virginia Tech: First Thoughts
3 min read

Virginia Tech: First Thoughts

I haven’t posted yet about Virginia Tech because I’m still trying to wrap my mind around it, which is difficult, to say the least. For me, Andrew Sullivan’s first take still applies:

There is so much we don’t yet know about the Virginia Tech massacre, so much that keeps changing, so much to be angry about, and to be terribly sad about, that catching up, let alone opining, seems simply inappropiate.

I’m not sure how long it will take for me to have a coherent view, but here are some first (incoherent thoughts):

All the discussions about Jamal Al Baughouti’s video footage seem to miss one crucial fact — the shootings were still ongoing at the time. The most arresting and disturbing aspect of the video to me was the fact that Al Baughouti didn’t run to seek safety after the first shots were fired and warnings were shouted — he kept filming. (Check out the pre-roll ad on the AOL video version — a whole other can of worms.)

Any effort by “citizen journalists” to “cover” such an incident live has much in common with live reporting from Iraq — lives are at risk. What are the implications of encouraging citizen journalism during life-threatening events? But it’s more complicated — and worse — than that. Could better coverage of the first shooting have lead to lives saved in the second shooting — or have prevented the second shooting entirely? These issues are so fantastically difficult that anybody who pretends to even know where to begin is fooling themselves and everybody else.

Law enforcement officials blocking access to all information, combined with unfettered, Web-enabled access to an incoherent network of first-hand accounts, is a deeply problematic combination, first and foremost for the families and friends of victims, and then rippling out to all of us. New media is great at distributing information, but it falls woefully short when it comes to making the inforamtion coherent and establishing its veracity — it’s currently a sloppy, messy, “organic” process.

The New York Times, paper of record, has an interactive graphic up that highlights the “classroom that suffered the greatest toll, according to student accounts.” The whole graphic is rife with uncertain information.

Then there’s the case of the gun enthusiast Virginia Tech student who was misindentified online as the shooter. What if he had been the victim of a vigilante attack?

Seeing as I have more questions than answers, and having broken my silence on the issue, I’m going to take the very unbloggerlike step of taking more time to think about it.
Moments after posting this, I saw this:

Gunman contacted NBC News during massacre
Rambling communication, video being examined by FBI, network says

Sometime after he killed two people in a Virginia university dormitory but before he slaughtered 30 more in a classroom building Monday morning, Cho Seung-Hui sent NBC News a rambling communication and videos about his grievances, the network said Wednesday.

The package, timestamped in the two-hour window between Monday’s shootings, was sent to NBC News head Steve Capus. In an interview with, Capus said Cho talks to the camera in the videos.


Dave Winer argues:

NBC should release all of the videos in Quicktime form as downloads. It’s wrong to withhold them.

They’re sifting through them and deciding what to release and what not to release.

It’s 2007, and it’s a decentralized world. We should all get a chance to see what’s on those videos.

Five years ago, NBC would only be facing the question of what to broadcast. Now, they need to face the question of whether to release a murder’s “content” to unfettered distribution on the open Web.

This certainly puts in perspective all of the mainstream media hand-wringing over how to handle “user generated content.”

There are so many terrible questions like, why did Cho put this in the hands of NBC? Why not upload it all to YouTube or Myspace, where Google would have made it discoverable to the whole world?

I can’t say with any certainty whether Dave is right or wrong — all I know is that these questions are too crushingly complex for any facile answers.