Tragedy has struck here at the University of South Carolina and it is interesting to see how both old and new media are contributing to coverage of the story.
Seven college students died Sunday morning in a ferocious fire at a North Carolina beach house. Six of them attended USC.
Authorities did not release the identities of the victims for more than 48 hours. Yet thanks to the social networking sites, especially Facebook, we not only got to know their names, but we also got to know them as people.
Traditional media organizations withheld the names Sunday, even though they were available online. But by Monday, as grief stricken friends were creating message boards online and relatives were stepping forward to give interviews, news organizations posted the names on their websites.
To date, the professional coverage has been thorough, but restrained, respectful of the lives that were lost. As I have monitored that coverage, talked to students and compared this story to others like it, here and elsewhere, I think a few conclusions are fairly obvious:
The best pictures, once again, came from an amateur, a neighbor with a video camera. As the BBC pointed out after the 2005 terrorist bombings in London, they could not aspire to be every place in the world where news happens. But real people with video cameras and camera phones are everywhere and are capturing truly newsworthy images.
The social networking sites like Faceback are playing an increasingly important role. One newly-created Facebook group, RIP Students Who Perished On Oct. 28 2007, already has more than 11,000 members. The online community has provided students a way to share their grief. It also has provided reporters a rich source of information to bring texture and depth to their stories.
The role of traditional media is just as important as ever. The best coverage of the fire has come from professional journalists, not amateurs. Plus in the always on, always connected world, we need editors more than ever. Some message boards inaccurately identified some as victims who are still alive. Fortunately, I am not aware of any of these mistakes being published.
I think this story reflects something we will see far more of in the future, with citizen journalists playing an increasingly important, but still supplementary role to professional coverage. We both have jobs to do and both are important.