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Case Study

Virginia Tech Case Study — The Intricacy of Breaking News

The 2007 massacre is the basis of a class activity because of the range of journalism and ethics issues that coverage of the event raised.

Virginia Tech police AP

Police respond to a shooting at Norris Hall on the Virginia Tech campus in April 2007. (Matt Gentry/The Roanoke Times/AP)

April 12, 2016

On the morning of April 16, 2007, tragedy struck on the campus at Virginia Tech. A gunman killed 32 students and faculty and wounded 17 others before taking his own life.

In the minutes, hours and days that followed, the news media clamored to feed the public’s hunger for information. Newseum Education has chosen to use the Virginia Tech massacre as a case study because of the range of journalism and ethics issues that coverage of the event raised — from the role of citizens as journalists, to where to turn for credible information, to racial  identification and misidentification of a suspect, to NBC’s airing of the gunman’s videotaped rantings, to the saturation coverage and media intrusiveness.

If anything rose above the grief that day, it was the consuming desire, on the part of the university community and the nation, to know details. Where people turned for information, where information was exchanged freely and where it was impeded shaped the perceptions and emotions surrounding the tragedy.

This activity for use in the classroom encourages students to explore the complex interaction among media, the public, law enforcement officials and others when an important news story breaks. Although technology has changed since 2007, the journalist principles of being accurate, fair and clear remain today as the story shifts from Virginia Tech to Sandy Hook or the Navy Yard.

The Virginia Tech case study has students role-playing major players and developing a response as events unfold. At the conclusion of the activity, students should be able to:

  • Discuss the tensions that exist among officials trying to ensure that justice is served, a public hungry for information and media outlets competing to cover a breaking new story.

Virginia-tech-screengrab

  • Analyze the difficulties inherent in news coverage of a violent event and its aftermath and explore the effects of news coverage on the families of those involved, on suspects and on local civilians.
  • Evaluate the performance of various media outlets in covering a tragic event, with a view toward improved understanding of the role and responsibilities of a free and fair press.
  • Understand the broader implications of even simple decisions made on deadline.

For background information, check out our Pinterest board with stories on the massacre and questions about the news coverage.

Go to the Activity

This case study was written by our wonderful colleague and former journalist Elizabeth Hurley, who died of cancer in 2008. 

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