Twitter in a Time of Tragedy

I remember when the Boston Marathon bombing happened. I was at my desk, going about what should have been a normal, uneventful day. I was probably working on a story, turning to my Twitter feed every few minutes for a distraction. Buzzfeed had a list of funny Kim Kardashian quotes, Jimmy Fallon was playing a game with his celebrity guest, Food 52 had just tweeted out a new recipe, and that stupid Bob’s Burger’s parody account I follow was making puns—like I said, a pretty normal day. And then the first tweet went live: Explosion at the finish line of the Boston Marathon.

This is the world we live in today, where a single moment can change your life, and for those of us on the sidelines, we have to watch the chaos unfold from the scrolling feed of our social media accounts.

Since the launch of Twitter in 2006, the term ‘real-time reporting’ has taken a precedence, requiring journalists to report the news as soon as they possibly can, starting first with a brief, 140 character post, which buys them about five minutes to get the first news story onto their website. That initial tweet is crucial though—social media has created the desire for immediate gratification in younger generations, and once we see that first tweet, we are left craving more.

For professional news sources, juggling that immediacy with accuracy has become somewhat of an art form. Keeping up with competition requires breaking the story before everyone else, reporting as the news develops, but if you get something wrong, the backlash seems to be greater than in the past. I remember with the Sandy Hook shooting, an incredibly sensitive story to cover, how accuracy was so important. And yet so many news sources were putting incorrect information out there—some made the situation seem less drastic, others made it seem worse. It took me a while to sift through the chatter to find the sources that were actually taking the time to confirm their report before putting it out there (which ironically was the BBC, who tweeted information five minutes after the other US sites).

So what exactly prompted me to discuss Twitter’s role in breaking news? Well, unfortunately, once again we have to watch tragedy unfold, this time at the Umpqua Community College in Roseburg, Ore., where a shooter opened fire around 10:38 a.m. PCT. By 11:38 a.m. PCT, reports confirmed the shooter was in custody, while the death toll stood at 10, with another 20 plus reported injured. The numbers are still rising, and I’m sure by the 10 p.m. news we’ll have a better idea of what happened. Until then, we wait and watch the reports trickle in over social media.

It’s heartbreaking to hear about another shooting. My good friend, Michele Richinick, over at Newsweek has spent much of her career writing about gun laws, and how our nation is shaped by gun-related tragedy. Today, she tweeted out that this is the 142nd reported shooting at a school since Sandy Hook.

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That’s 142 times that lives were shattered. Students who should be rushing to finish their homework assignments instead were rushing to escape; to save their lives. We can argue for years about gun control, but the fact still remains that our current laws aren’t working. You can always read more about my thoughts on gun control here.

What was unique to the coverage of this most recent horror though, was the tweet from one website. I’ve complained before about how it irritates me that during a time of crises, many Twitter handles are still posting links to completely irrelevant things, and it always makes me angry. While I wait for more updates about the situation, I can’t stand the tweets about a new hair product, or how some online personality ‘can’t even’ over the latest poster of Zach Efron. The man buns and national food holidays that occupy our airspace on regular days suddenly become obsolete during times of tragedy. Which was why this tweet from Refinery29 will stick out:

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They get it. They understand the importance of sensitivity. Because when the world stops, you suddenly realize what really matters.

Update, Friday, October 2, 2015, 10:15 a.m.:

This shooting has brought up a discussion topic that breaks my heart–mass shootings have become so common in our country, that we have a routine for it. You could sense the anger in Obama’s speech as he went through, yet again, the same speech about senseless violence killing innocent Americans. “Our thoughts and prayers are not enough,” he said, making a clear statement that action needs to be taken regarding gun control. Because, for F*CK sake, why the hell does this keep happening?!

I also HIGHLY recommend you read this piece from Newsweek reporter Polly Mosendz on the routine of a reporter covering a mass shooting. “Mass death is prewritten in America,” she tells us. This is where we stand, America.

It’s Time to Talk About Gun Control…Again

This morning, a gunman walked up to a news crew from the local broadcast station WDBJ7 in Moneta, VA. Two members of the news team, reporter Alison Parker, 24, and cameraman Adam Ward, 27, were shot and killed at close range while interviewing Vicki Gardner of the Smith Mountain Lake Regional Chamber of Commerce around 6:45 a.m. on Wednesday, August 26. Gardner was also shot and was rushed to the hospital for emergency surgery. Reports say she is recovering.

The gunman, a former employee of WDBJ7, Vester Lee Flanigan, also known as Bryce Williams, shot himself on I-66 in Faquier County, according to state police. He was late reported dead from hose self-inflicted wounds.

6:45 a.m.–Most of us were waking up at that hour, preparing for our days and catching the morning report from our local news stations. Local news stations like WDBJ7, who sent out their crews to cover the latest topics for the morning broadcast. But for these two young reporters, their day was already half over. I’m sure they were expecting a typical day—show up to work, do a simple piece with the Chamber of Commerce, cover a few other small reports, sign off and head home to go about their days. Newsweek reported that Ward had a job interview after his shift, a step up to the career he was still just starting. These two had so much to look forward to, so much left to give to this world. And in an instant, all that was gone.

These types of stories have become far too frequent in the web of today’s news. Without delving into the subtopics of race, poverty, etc. that also seem to haunt shootings, the story is always the same: the victims’ lives are cut short because the gunman decided the only way to be heard was to open fire. We’ve seen this happen countless times—in schools, in theaters, in places we once thought were safe. Ten years ago, it was unheard of to have your bags checked before entering a movie theater to enjoy a film. Now, kids smuggling in candy to the theater is the least of their worries.

But where do we draw the line? At what point will we acknowledge that gun control in this country is the problem?

In the wake of the most recent shooting, I took to Twitter to see what discussions arose from this tragedy. First, the sheer professionalism of the WDBJ7 staff shined through—with tweets remembering their colleagues, coupled with the live broadcast focused on the slain reporters’ lives and careers, the station kept their focus on the positive, while still providing updates on the hunt for the shooter. My heart broke watching the anchors talk about their colleagues, who they interacted with only hours before. You could sense that as soon as their job was done for the day, the only thing left to do was step off camera and cry. And for the loved ones of the victims—a boyfriend, a fiancée, parents, siblings, friends—their lives will never be the same.

As the day progressed, the back and forth about gun laws started to pick up. Presidential hopeful Hillary Clinton called for gun reform, tweeting: “Heartbroken and angry. We must act to stop gun violence, and we cannot wait any longer. Praying for the victims’ families in Virginia.” Virginia Governor Terry McAuliffe echoed these sentiments, saying it’s time again to address laws against gun violence.

I feel that each time a shooting occurs (something that is far more frequent now than in the past), the same arguments come out. The anti-gun side argues for stricter laws, while the pro-gun advocates say that we just need to prevent killers from getting their hands on guns. But what constitutes a ‘killer’? How can we prevent ‘killers’ from getting their hands on guns when many are not yet killers? Isn’t the soul purpose for a gun is to kill? What other practical use does it have? The reality isn’t some liberal conspiracy to take away your guns—it’s that our current system isn’t working, and it’s time for change.

I will admit that if I was in charge, there would be extremely strict requirements over gun ownership. In fact, I’d like to see a world where civilians had no need for guns, but I also know that that scenario would never happen—in a government base off balance, there is always room for compromise, even with the issues you feel strongest about. That’s why gun control needs to remain at the top of our list, because the current system just isn’t working. How many more innocent lives must we lose before we make a lasting change?