Documentary news?


Documentary news?


By: Sarah Ball

By now, there isn't a soul in the United States who hasn't seen the greasy, glinting forehead of Cho Seung-Hui, the gunman responsible for what broadcast news and the blogosphere are terming "the Virginia Tech Massacre." His grease and his glint are everywhere, above every fold, at the top of every segment of every news program on every channel. Every anchor and every rural Virginia stringer for every paper have started every story this week with that grease, and that man.

Then, invariably, they turn it over to us-to the cell phone cameramen, the bloggers, the Facebook status changers.

The era of the citizen journalist, age 19, has arrived.

This week, in this new era, I watched major news programs become veritable footage Crazy Quilts, with those same borrowed phone shots and MySpace stills casually inter-cut with traditional anchor shots. In establishing a timeline on that fateful Monday, journalists did not simply seek help from the intrepid reporters at Tech's paper, The Collegiate Times. They posted interview requests to message boards, requested footage to be e-mailed or uploaded to websites, scoured community sites like Facebook and MySpace for leads.

Fox News, which has outdone itself with glossy infotainment segments and dirge-like piano soundtracks, ran an entirely viewer-constructed package called "You Report" on the day of the shooting. You Report was comprised of cell videos of police cars and evacuating students, as well as transcribed posts from sites like and MySpace.

When not plumbing the citizen journalist pool for pre-made reporting, Fox itself reported on other ways students were using Internet tech-kids notifying their families of their safety via Facebook, for example, when cell phone lines were clogged.

In the absence of order, the cyber chaos both reported the news and was the news.

All this is perhaps unremarkable, given the prevalence of digital communication in collegiate life, and the ways in which crisis tends to unify a body of people in whatever community, digital or physical, they may lie. Yet the transition from man-on-the-street interviewing and reporting in times of crisis to this mish-mashing of homemade footage nuggets can't pass without examination.

It's not only a pretty new phenomenon for major network news stations to capitalize on these particular grassroots sources (Facebook? Really?), but it also actually alters the genre of what we're seeing. Ostensibly, we're watching news. But since when did news have weepy soundtracks, or gunman-style storyboard art, or dozens of non-journalist reporters? Is not a Fark post or personal blog entry the kissing cousin of a televised diary-room confession, that familiar feature of reality television that red flags what we're watching as staged and fictional?

Even secondary or tertiary differences, like the nauseating bobbing of handheld-cell phone footage, shows viewers a pure and unfiltered strain of raw emotion-a guttural-ness that we perhaps more closely associated with documentary film than with the six o'clock news.

Hearing the personal thoughts of students is tremendously moving to me, and has no doubt left my fellow denizens of the beautiful Old Dominion close to breakdown as we wait to hear about friends and family. Yet each time I hear or read those unadulterated thoughts, or see that dizzying cell shot, I am not left with the impression that what I am consuming is news. I am still not sure what I can safely believe.

Documentarian takes on soft news, in both conception and delivery phases, may peter out as a trend. We may lose our taste for the sensationalized, the citizen journalist and the unapologetic commodification of fact. At the bottom of a pack of Sour Patch Kids, your tongue eventually goes numb.

But we could also adapt. We could learn to better process what hard news means for average citizens, as we see more confessionals, read more superlative language, hear more weepy piano. Emotive, homemade news could be the final frontier in mobilizing apathetic Americans.

Or. Jack Shafer, editor-at-large of, wrote Tuesday in defense of journalists that there is "no tougher assignment in journalism than knocking on the door of a mother who has lost her young daughter to a killer and asking, 'How do you feel?'" Earnestness and an unshakeable "self-disgust" help reporters to cope and to get the mother on the record in these situations, he continues. Besides, if networks hadn't gone to the wall on this one, chasing Facebook for sob stories, viewers would have been outraged.

I'm not sure that I agree. Shafer says we're narrowly avoiding outrageous sensationalism overall, but I'm not sure that it wouldn't take much more than a boost in market competition among media outlets to finally reduce feature journalism to pulp. And if that happens-if rules bend to accommodate the effectively affecting, and if the untrained citizen reporter takes over-what mourning family would dignify that imposing knock with an open door and a somber quote?

I know that I would not.

<i>Sarah Ball is a Trinity junior and former editorial page editor of The Chronicle. She is a native of Virginia. Her column runs every Thursday.</i>


Original Source: <a href=> Duke Chronicle - April 19, 2007</a>


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Sarah Ball, “Documentary news?,” The April 16 Archive, accessed August 9, 2022,