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MSNBC graphic

I was horrified to hear about the mass-killings at Virginia Tech on Monday, but didn’t want to add my voice to the many who were writing the same thing about it. Luckily, Boston-based software engineer Jon Garfunkel, who publishes media structures research at Civilities.net and helped take the burden off my shoulders by writing up an excellent take on the tragedy and the way the media (new and old) have reacted to it. This is his special report for MediaShift. —Mark Glaser

Part 1: Reactive

After the shootings at Virginia Tech, much of the initial reaction on the Internet followed the familiar rhythm of disaster reporting in recent years. First, the point is made that it is now more likely for an average person to be at a tragic hot spot with a cell phone or Net connection. Next, the story is naturally picked up, either directly or independently, by a traditional media outlet. Finally, the advocates of citizen media claim victory while the actual story is still bleating. Rob Walker first noticed this in Slate in March 2001, when the denizens of MetaFilter first noticed an earthquake. New media triumphalism is now professionalized, and the major journalism studies programs all contribute to it.

David Cohn, a Columbia Journalism School student contributing to NYU Professor Jay Rosen’s NewAssignment.Net, wrote that “behind [the tragedy] was actually an emerging network, the birth of yet another citizen journalism network.” Dan Gillmor, Director of the Center for Citizen Media, wrote in an Op-Ed piece published by the Washington Examiner, “The scope of the media shift was clearer again on Monday. Some of the most widely viewed images came from a mobile phone camera aimed at the police response by a student, Jamal Albaughouti.”

Amy Gahran at the Poynter Institute wrote, “Doubtless in coming days we’ll be poring over the first-person blog entries, Twitter posts, forum discussions, Flickr photos, podcasts, moblogs, YouTube videos, and more from those unfortunate enough to be on that campus today. The most poignant content will get highlighted and examined; the harshest and most tasteless will get excoriated.”

No longer. Among CNN’s Most Watched Videos, Al-Baurghouti’s video has become less popular than those produced by CNN’s professionals. The #1 video yesterday was the one that was most tasteless — that of the murderer’s tirade/confession which NBC called his “multimedia manifesto.” A dozen years ago, it took the New York Times and the Washington Post three months to consider whether to publish the Unabomber’s manifesto, and only in an attempt to flush him out. NBC decided to air the shooter’s videos, and adding insult to injury, feigned ignorance when its MSNBC prime-time lineup played them in a seemingly endless loop. NBC was utterly unprepared for the torrent of criticism; families of the victims refused to appear on “The Today Show” the following morning.

Once the killer’s video came out, the triumphalism tune got remixed slightly. A WGBH spot introducing Chris Lydon’s hip-to-the-blogosphere show Radio Open Source last night teased that it would be about “the first mass murder made for YouTube.” Never mind that the killer sent his video to NBC via mail, or that the initial cell phone video was sold to CNN, whereupon it was pilfered onto YouTube (which YouTube executive Jordan Hoffner, either predicted or promised). On the program, Lydon mused about the apparent “split” between the killer’s choice of the new media (using a computer to produce it), and the old (dropping it in the mail to the NBC).

What’s chilling here is that the perpetrators of the Columbine massacre were much more Internet-savvy seven years ago; enough that, according to Sam Vincent Meddis in USA Today back in 1999, that “we’ve come to expect when the media focus turns to cyberspace, some pundits are trying to blame the Internet for the mass murder in Littleton.”

Today, the triumphalists are eager to draw associations to new media where none exist. The Internet is here; it is used by most people; and in some cases for uses unimaginable years ago. This tragedy was not one of them. This whole reactive reporting line is not due to ill intentions; it’s simply a need to find a hook to connect to readers. One can find a better hook; one only need to look.

Part 2: Proactive

What’s needed here is to see media as something larger than news — a reactive process — and also as something more profound than mere conversations. With the speed and pervasiveness of media devices (such as cell phones), it’s possible to communicate emergency information to the public right as the situation is playing out. Or before it happens.

This isn’t an original idea of mine: It’s what happened during Hurricane Katrina. The disaster was only beginning when the winds died and the levees broke. The New Orleans Times-Picayune re-jiggered their NOLA.com website to serve as a virtual rescue center, connecting people and resources across the region.

The Web 2.0 crowd, on dry land throughout America, followed suit by mobilizing for “Recovery 2.0” — a set of technologies and practices for confronting disaster elsewhere. Jeff Jarvis assembled many of the ideas and people together in his Call to Convene post. One project under way, PeopleFinder, had been used to aggregate “missing persons” services amongst the various news and emergency organizations. Another objective, to Jarvis: “How can we use not just the web and the Internet but also SMS and voice phones and other means to gather news both broadly and very locally?”

In October 2005, 45 volunteers met in San Francisco, including former FCC Chairman Michael Powell. A Recovery 2.0 wiki was set up and hosted by SocialText, but since the start of 2006 the only contributions have been spam. The PeopleFinder website was also abandoned around the same time. The site was last recorded being up on January 16, 2006, according to the Internet Archive. Fortunately, the International Committee of the Red Cross continues to host Family Links, which is used for emergency situations around the world.

For all its good intentions, it seems like Recovery 2.0 was operating in a parallel universe from the spheres of power. The United States Congress took notice of the national mood in recognizing the failures of FEMA. The week after Jarvis’s Recovery 2.0 post, Senator Jim DeMint introduced the Warning, Alert, and Responsive Network (WARN) Act in the United States Senate a week after Jarvis’s post. This was not completely out of the blue; it had grown out of the work of the Partnership for Public Warning which had formed after 9/11. The PPW’s national strategy document from February 2003 took note of the obvious:

Rapidly increasing numbers of Americans are carrying and using electronic devices daily for reasons other than warning. All of these devices could also deliver warnings, and adding this capability can very inexpensive. Use of GPS and other electronic location technologies allow receivers to know their location and to receive location-specific warning information from satellites, television, radio, Internet, and other sources.

The FCC similarly got mobilized. On January 9, 2006, the Hurricane Katrina Independent Panel was formed to analyze how the nation’s communications systems served in time of disaster. They issued a 53-page, 37,000-word final report in June 2006, which dealt with the full scope of communications failures.

The WARN Act ultimately was passed in October 2006 as part of H.R. 4954, the Safe Accountability for Every Port Act. While Senator Ted Stevens was maligned by the Net neutrality movement for describing the Internet as a “series of tubes” in June, he had managed to steer the WARN Act through to its passage. The act was signed into law, and the relevant sections 601-606 were untouched by the President’s signing statement. The act called for the formation of a Commercial Mobile Service Alert Advisory Committee (CMSAAC).

Only one voice in the blogosphere noticed: Art Botterell, who watched the evolution of the act. He was a bit disappointed about its limited focus on mobile phones as opposed to a multi-modal approach, but was otherwise encouraged by the efforts.

Why didn’t the media notice this legislative progress on responding to disasters? There wasn’t a hook for the WARN act or the creation of CMSAAC — no disaster. But there is one now, in the guise of a man-made one. Disaster management engineering is often about solving yesterday’s problems. But consider the alternative: not solving problems at all.

The best press came from a December 2005 article “Reinventing 911” in Wired magazine. Botterell was profiled along with some innovative emergency systems deployments. Gary Wolf wryly noted: “Open data standards aren’t sexy. You can’t sell them to the government for a pile of cash. And it’s hard to pose in front of them for celebratory photographs.”

But imagine the benefits a call that goes to 911 about gunshots or a fleeing suspect, and if you’re in the area, you’re informed about that. You can act, take cover, or inform the person next to you. If your device has GPS enabled, it could filter for only those messages within a few city blocks. In Portland, Oregon, the information is sent to the web so that citizens can actively search for live emergencies as well. Similarly, a private company called Mobile Campus has been providing such a service to universities; in the wake of the Virginia Tech shootings, they have been pushing their service for wider adoption.

What if Virginia Tech had had the use of a broadcast-to-cellphone service when the first shooting happened? Could it have saved lives? “Quite possibly,” Botterell wrote me, noting that it’s no magic solution; it presumes that the warning would have been prepared correctly.

Of course, the pervasiveness of false alerts must be considered as well. What would have happened in Boston in January when a “suspicious package” was first spotted at 8 a.m.? A couple of things might have turned out differently with that marketing gimmick for Turner that went awry. The commuters coming from north of the city might have just had an idea to take an alternate route. If the Boston Police had the presence of mind to take a picture of it and post it in an information alert system, the guerrilla marketers who had planted it might have been able to volunteer information immediately (The Boston Police has a blog, but their first use of it that day was late in the afternoon to announce the press conference).

Could such a service be abused, as many believe the color-coded Homeland Security “terror alerts” were? Hopefully not. The wireless phone vendors have agreed to make Amber alerts (about missing and exploited children) opt-in, though neither of the Verizon wireless salesmen who sold me phones in the last year thought to mention it to me. The CMSAAC committee looks like it’s on the right path; its meeting notes and video are available publicly, and one can always check in with Art Botterell’s blog if that’s the preferred medium.

We owe it to ourselves — and to the memories of the victims — to turn our collective fascination with new media into workable solutions that may help prevent future tragedies.