Yesterday at 3 p.m., my colleague looked up from his iPhone. “There was some kind of explosion at the Boston Marathon.”
He immediately went to his computer and pulled up a news site. A banner ran across the page. Breaking: Two explosions at the Boston Marathon.
No other information. I pulled up the Drudge Report on my phone. Nothing on it. Then I went to Twitter.
“Oh my god what just happened?”
“We heard two loud booms at the finish line.”
“My friend is running!”
“Are we under attack?”
“Chaos in #Boston.”
The pictures were graphic and raw. Blood-drenched sidewalks. People crumpled on the ground. Medics and runners running into the smoke. A 5-second video showed the explosion itself, a burst of orange flames in the stands near the finish line.
I couldn’t look away. It seemed neither could anyone else as the video and photos were retweeted over and over. Soon journalists stepped up, tweeting at others to stop retweeting the graphic images out of respect for the victims.
News outlets started tweeting at eyewitnesses for more information. The Red Cross tweeted where to go for help and how to donate blood. The hashtag #PrayersforBoston began trending on Twitter. It seemed everyone in the world was watching the chaos at the marathon unfold in real-time.
But they weren’t. In the hour after the explosion, I watched as oblivious users and brands tweeted mundanely. Other users tweeted back angrily.
“Don’t you know what’s going on in #Boston?”
“Now is not the time for ads.”
Soon brands began tweeting in support of Boston. Many fell silent.
Then the rumors and false reports started coming through Twitter. There were more bombs. Sandy Hook survivors had been injured. 12 were dead. A fire was raging at JFK Library.
Was Boston under attack? I didn’t know. No one knew. And so into the night we stayed on Twitter and Facebook, looking for the freshest news and for assurances–assurances that our friends and family were safe, that we knew who was behind the bombings, and that ultimately we were going to be okay.
It’s the new normal, turning to social media during breaking news. It makes sense, considering Twitter can travel faster than the waves of an earthquake. If you can see live video of an event and hear the reactions from someone on the scene, why wouldn’t you go there first?
But it’s a really new new normal. Six years ago today, a gunman opened fire on campus at Virginia Tech. Thirty-two people and the gunman were killed, making it the deadliest shooting rampage in modern American history.
While covering that story, I think the media discovered the power of social media. My colleagues at Time Magazine and I certainly did. This is how I remember it.
On the morning of Monday, April 16, 2007, I was sitting at my desk in Time’s Washington bureau. Although I was 22 and a year out of school, I probably looked 18.
Around 9:30 a.m., I noticed a headline on CNN — Shooting at Virginia Tech, Two Believed Dead. I returned to my work. Random, small shootings like that were becoming so common.
But two hours later, the story shifted dramatically. News broke that the gunman had returned to the campus and opened fire in an academic building. More than 20 people were dead and many more injured. After hanging up on a conference call, my editor walked over to my desk. “We need you to get to the scene,” he said.
“Of course,” I replied. “But why?”
“We need you to interview people on the ground there and send what you find back to New York,” he said.
“OK, but how will I get there?” I asked.
“Book a flight if you can. Do whatever it takes to get there as quickly as possible.”
The winds in Washington were high that day, so high that the planes at the airports were grounded. I would have to drive by myself to campus. I quickly bought a map of Virginia, rented a car, stopped at home to grab a change of clothes and hit the road, headed west.
Virginia Tech is located in a small college town called Blacksburg. Blacksburg is about 270 miles southwest of Washington, D.C. To get there, you have to drive through the Blue Ridge Mountains. Being from Illinois, I had never driven in the mountains before and hugged the right lane as 18-wheelers barreled past. For the first two hours, I listened to NPR and its grim reports out of Blacksburg. Then I switched it off, trying to stay calm. The sun was setting and I was still 90 miles from campus.
I arrived on campus at 7 p.m., almost 12 hours after the first round of shootings had taken place in a dorm. A dozen news trucks were parked outside the alumni center, now the makeshift press center. I parked my car and was walking into the center when a reporter with a cameraman stopped me.
“What did you see?” He asked, putting a microphone to my face. “Did you see the gunman? Do you know anyone who was killed?”
“No!” I snapped, waving back the microphone. “I’m a reporter, too. Leave me alone!”
Realizing that everyone would mistake for me a student, I put my press pass on around my neck and walked into the center. All things considered, it was very calm. Reporters were hunched over their laptops or talking quietly on their cellphones. Inside the auditorium, news crews had set up makeshift work spaces, computers and cords and empty cups strewn everywhere.
I took a seat in the back and opened my laptop to check my email, the first time I had done so since leaving Washington that afternoon. I called my editor in New York and he told me they needed color–to describe what campus looked like tonight and of course, to find people who had seen the shootings. Katie, our intern in New York, connected me to her friend who was a senior at Virginia Tech and was willing to talk to me.
I called him on his cell and he agreed to give me a tour of campus. We met outside his apartment a few blocks away and proceeded to walk to the center of campus where a makeshift memorial was forming. The winds were still high, so high that the candles at the memorial wouldn’t stay lit. The few students who were out walked together in groups, their hoodies pulled up against the cold and the reporters who were everywhere.
He took me to a nearby bar where his friends were gathered. I told them our conversation was off the record, not that it really mattered. They didn’t know anyone who had been shot, nor did they know anything about the gunman. Instead they sat quietly, staring at their beers with blank expressions. The next few days, I would see those blank expressions over and over. The entire town was in shock.
As we said goodnight, Katie’s friend told me to call him if I needed anything. I thanked him and told him I would.
I returned to the press center and filed my story to the editors waiting in New York. At 3 a.m., I pulled into a dingy hotel across town. Elaine, a correspondent from our bureau in Washington, had arrived there just before me. “Get to sleep,” she said. “Tomorrow’s going to be a long day.”
Four hours later, we were awake again, getting ready with the news on in the background. Elaine got off a call with New York and told me that Michael, a senior editor also based in our bureau, had driven up over night and would meet us at the press center. We each got into our cars and drove back to campus.
Overnight, the press center had turned into a media zoo. In the parking lot, I counted at least 60 news trucks, their license plates from many different states. On the sprawling lawn beside the press center, the networks had staked out their turf. Celebrity journalists sat in directors chairs, waiting to go live. Inside the press center, every seat in the auditorium was taken.
We staked out a spot in the lobby near a power outlet. Michael quickly gave us our assignments. He was going to figure out who the gunman was and Elaine was going to report on the university’s mishandling of the shooting. It was my job to track down the students who had escaped the gunman.
Okay, Tracy, you can do this, I thought. I sat on the floor and opened up my laptop, unsure where to start. Suddenly, several news crews rushed past me and out the door. “Where are you going?” I asked a cameraman.
“We just got word that students are starting to line up outside the football field,” he said. “The president is going to be speaking there later.”
Students! I thew my laptop in my bag and raced with the news crews across campus. Sure enough, a line of students was beginning to form outside the main entrance to the football field. I made sure my press pass was visible as I approached a group of students.
“Hi, my name is Tracy and I’m a reporter with Time,” I said to them. “Would you be willing to talk to me?”
The students stared at me. Silently, they circled closer around one guy who looked like he was about to throw up or cry or both. “I’m sorry, we’d really rather not,” someone said.
“Of course, I’m so sorry,” I said and backed away slowly.
Two girls were standing a few feet away. “We will talk to you,” one girl said. “We’ve been looking for our friend Austin for the past day. We called all of the hospitals, but we can’t find her. Have you heard of her?”
I told them I didn’t, that I just got to campus the night before.
“We don’t know what else to do,” the girl said, “so we thought we would come here and wait to hear the president speak.”
“I’m so sorry,” was all I could think to say. “I will be praying for Austin, her family and for you.”
“Thank you,” the girl said.
Later I learned that Austin was among the students who had died. Thinking back on it, I could have interviewed the girls about Austin and their thoughts on the shooting. As a reporter, it would have been the smart thing to do. But I was on my own and had no reference point for any of this. What’s more, I couldn’t stop thinking how these students were my age and looked and sounded and dressed just like my friends.
Just as I said good-bye to the girls, a middle-aged reporter passed me. “I need to talk to students from Kentucky!” He shouted. “Anyone from Kentucky? I need to talk to students from Kentucky!”
No one spoke. I wanted to slap him. This wasn’t how you treated people who had just lost their friends and possibly survived the unthinkable. He was the reason the media had a terrible reputation during stories like this.
As I headed back to the press center, another news crew stopped me. Once more, a reporter thrust a microphone in my face. This time I said nothing and flashed my press pass in her face. There had to be a better, more empathic way to find the survivors.
Just months earlier, Facebook opened its doors to the public and let anyone have a profile who wanted one. As a reporter, I had used Facebook as a tool in my reporting for Time. I also wrote a few stories about Facebook’s growing impact. So it made sense to use it as a tool at Virginia Tech.
The problem was that I was not a student at Virginia Tech. This meant I could only see the names and profile photos of the students in the Virginia Tech. It was almost impossible to see anything else on their profiles. To do so, I would need to login as a Virginia Tech student.
Luckily, Katie, was already on it. Her friend, the Virginia Tech senior, agreed to let us use his Facebook login. We were in.
I sat on the floor outside the press center, IMing back and forth with Katie in New York. We had to find students that were either in the dorm or the classrooms the gunman had entered. We had gotten the course names from earlier news reports, so we knew to look for a French class and an engineering class. We pulled up the names of hundreds of students registered for those courses. We would have to go through their profiles, one by one. It would take hours to go through all of them.
As we were splitting up the list, a freelancer named Annie arrived at the press center. Our editor in New York had hired her to help us out with the reporting. She agreed to help Katie and me go through Facebook, looking for students who had seen the gunman. And so we sat together, hunched over our laptops and pouring over Facebook profiles. I quickly learned how to tell if a student had seen something.
If a student had survived, he would have posted a status update like, “I’m OK. Thanks for your prayers, I’ll be in touch soon.”
If a student had been injured, his friends would have written posts on his wall like, “We are praying for your recovery.”
If a student had been killed, his friends would have written posts on his wall like, “We will always remember you.”
I soon became desensitized to what I saw on Facebook. It was as if I was operating on auto-pilot, scanning a profile in 15 seconds and moving onto the next, looking for a student who could talk to us. If I had stopped to process what I was seeing, I would have started crying and called my mom. I didn’t have time to cry. We had less than 24 hours until the magazine went to press. We had to find students who had seen the gunman.
When we found a student who might have seen something, we took turns messaging the student. Because we were using another Virginia Tech student’s login, we had to identify ourselves as reporters.
“Hi,” I wrote to each student. “My name is actually Tracy Schmidt. I’m 22 years old and I’m a reporter with Time Magazine. This is my email address and this is my cell phone number. Will you talk to me?”
A couple of students messaged back to me and agreed to talk on the phone. I was talking to a girl who lived in the dorm when Annie got the message that changed everything. His name was Clay Violand and he was in the French class when the gunman entered. He couldn’t call Annie because his phone was still in the classroom. Could he email Annie instead? Yes, she said. We never could have predicted what came next.
Clay emailed Annie his first-person account of how the gunman entered his classroom and started shooting everyone. Clay dove under his desk and played dead. He listened as his classmates were shot and died.
“I had come to accept my death, but the fear was still there,” he wrote. “I was terrified that my parents weren’t going to be able to go on after I was gone. I kept thinking about my parents. There was a girl in front of me– I didn’t know her well. I didn’t know her name. We kept eye contact from time to time. She was brave. I don’t think she cried. We just started at each other under the desks.
When the gunman finally left, I heard the police barge in the hallway doors and yell ‘get down! Get down!’ The cops pounded on the door and asked someone to open it. I think eventually they just came in and told us to walk out if we could. I got up and put my hands up. Just me and that one girl next to me got up. She had a gunshot wound — I hope she is OK. I think she is — she was walking. I am so proud of her for staying calm. She would have been the last person I had made eye contact with on this earth if I had died.”
Annie immediately showed his email to Michael, the editor sitting with us. “Verify it,” he said. “You got it from Facebook.”
In other words, it could have been a hoax. I ran to the makeshift press office and asked if the woman behind the counter could verify if Clay had been in the French class. “I’m sorry,” she said, “but privacy rules forbid me from telling you what students are enrolled in a certain class.”
We would need to find another way. Annie and I both tracked down Clay’s mother. She lived in Maryland. I called the number listed in the yellow pages online. I got her voicemail and left a message, saying that we had been in contact with her son and needed to verify his story. Luckily for us, Clay’s mother called us both back.
“How is he?” She asked me. “I haven’t been able to talk to him because he doesn’t have his phone.”
I told her that I thought he seemed okay but clearly traumatized based on the email. I also told her that I would be praying for him and everyone. Being a young journalist, I didn’t know if I was allowed to say things like that. In j-school, we were taught to always be objective and distant from our sources. It was the distance that allowed us to tell the story factually and without bias. But no journalism class could have prepared us to cover Virginia Tech and interview survivors who were exactly our age.
After getting off the phone with Clay’s mom, Annie gave Michael the all-clear. He in turn gave New York the all-clear. Within minutes, Clay’s email ran as an exclusive on Time.com. It was soon linked to by other websites, including the Drudge Report, and it quickly went viral. The next morning, Clay told his story on NPR.
Without Facebook, and more importantly a Facebook login to the Virignia Tech network, we would have never found Clay.
But Annie, Katie and I weren’t the only journalists using Facebook that day. Members of the student newspaper, the Collegiate Times, were also pouring over Facebook at their seats in the press center. In fact, almost every person who stayed put in the press center was under 25 years old. Everyone else was doing reporting the old way by knocking on doors. We didn’t realize it then, but we had found a new way to do reporting–with social media.
In the six years since, I’ve told this story to lots of people across the country. Many of those people have been journalists and educators who wanted to understand what we did with Facebook and, more importantly, whether it was ethical. Some older journalists argued that it was unethical because we had used someone else’s Facebook login to message the students. I held that it was ethical because we had permission to use his account and because we clearly identified ourselves as journalists. Most people agree with this point.
Social media has also exploded since April 2007. At the time, Twitter was a brand-new service used mostly by techies. Tumblr had launched two months earlier. Instagram didn’t even exist yet.
Now, as we saw with the Boston Marathon, social media has become the first place that everyone–including journalists themselves–turns to for information. The advantage is that information from the scene is immediately distributed to the masses. The disadvantage is that incorrect information is shared and becomes treated as fact until proven otherwise. This is why we will always need journalists.
Yesterday afternoon, within 30 minutes of the bombings and amidst the conflicting reports, one tweet stood out to me. It was from my former colleague at Time Magazine, Jay Newton-Small.
It read simply: “Heading to Boston.”