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Toughest question is still unanswered

April 18, 2007|TIM RUTTEN

The collaboration intensified Monday at Virginia Tech, where media-savvy students used camera phones and Internet technology to "document" their experiences. If there were a journalistic star of the day, it was the preternaturally articulate VT graduate student Jamal Albarghouti, born on the West Bank and raised in Saudi Arabia, who provided CNN with video and personal accounts that the network still was airing a day later.

Albarghouti was one of a number of reporters-for-a-day enlisted by television and radio newscasts, and their contribution illuminated one of the new media's strengths, which is immediacy. On the other hand, it also was true that the students' video wasn't, in any traditional sense, very good. Its value was essentially voyeuristic rather than informative. To make that point is not to diminish it, but to acknowledge the fact that new media have the same limitations as old -- it's hard to do words and pictures that genuinely add to our knowledge of a situation, particularly a fluid and dangerous one. Unless you're just plain lucky, it takes practice to do so, and that's called professionalism. Sensation is actually rather easy to communicate -- and the students' videos, photos and social network entries did that -- communicating something worth knowing is a little more difficult.

Similarly, new media's other face -- the blogs -- clearly displayed their major shortcoming. Their approach to even events like this is almost completely politicized, and facts are subordinate to ideology. Thus, within hours of the shootings, these sites -- both left and right -- already anticipated and were preoccupied by the possible political fallout of this latest mass murder.

Right-wing and conservative sites immediately began a defensive discussion of the event's implications for the never-ending debate over gun control and fulminated darkly over the loss of respect for teachers and adults generally, about the malevolent influence of Hollywood and violent video games. By Monday evening, when false reports that the killer was a Chinese immigrant began to circulate, an I-told-you-so denunciation of allegedly lax immigration policies began.

On the left, similar discussions of Virginia's gun laws, the lapsed assault weapon ban -- no such gun was involved -- and the pernicious influence of the war in Iraq broke out.

All of it was drearily predictable; none of it was at all helpful.

If there is a lesson to be drawn from our news media's treatment of the Virginia atrocity, it's that we're up to our neck in unsatisfactory answers and very short on the right questions.

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