New media and Virginia Tech

The role new media technology has to play in averting tragedies like Virginia Tech and in the afterm

When the words “Virginia Tech” come to mind, the first thing most people think of is tragedy and a year on from the 16 April shootings it is especially remembered.

In the shock immediately following the shootings, people were baffled as to how Cho Seung-Hui could have carried out his bloody spree over so many hours.

People wanted someone to blame and most came to the same conclusion: the university's communication to students was just not good enough.

The Virginia Tech experience clarified the need for new media technology that could have been used to notify students faster about the potential threat. Americans said the same thing after 9-11. After 9-11 many New Yorkers wanted a system that would contact people in affected areas en masse to let them know the situation. Companies like Send Word Now and Intelligent Wireless Solutions developed the capacity to alert people in businesses, universities or neighbourhoods who are signed up for the service using text messages, phone calls, messages to computer desktops, and emails. They also use the more traditional methods of radio announcements, loudspeakers and television announcements.

Before Virginia Tech few American universities had any sort of emergency alert system, but in the wake of the shootings, these systems are becoming more prevalent.

According to a recent survey only five per cent of universities said they used mobile phones in their emergency response before Virginia Tech but now more than 75% of the survey respondents said mobile phones are included.

There is also legislation under discussion that would require U.S. universities to issue “warnings in 30 minutes or less after an emergency”. While thankfully there has been no tragedy on the same scale in British university campuses, maybe the administrators should consider taking extra precautions and implementing these sorts of systems.

The UK has been slower moving in developing this type of new media emergency communications, even after the events of 7/7, but there are some steps in the right direction. CommunitySafe provides information in emergencies through pagers, SMS, phone calls, emails, and PDAs and even provides maps outlining the areas affected by the event.

On 7/7 “subscribers were notified six hours before the national press reported the incident”, the company claims. Another organisation involved in emergency messaging is Vocal, which has existed since 1998 but just started its emergency communications warnandinform system recently. Send Word Now has also implemented a global SMS plan to expand its communication services further.

While there is still fear that, in an actual disaster, systems may not function properly, it is still important to try to prepare for these situations, using the new media available. The emergency response systems should be commended for their help to the community and for exploring emergency technology.

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What it’s like to fall victim to the Mail Online’s aggregation machine

I recently travelled to Iraq at my own expense to write a piece about war graves. Within five hours of the story's publication by the Times, huge chunks of it appeared on Mail Online – under someone else's byline.

I recently returned from a trip to Iraq, and wrote an article for the Times on the desecration of Commonwealth war cemeteries in the southern cities of Amara and Basra. It appeared in Monday’s paper, and began:

“‘Their name liveth for evermore’, the engraving reads, but the words ring hollow. The stone on which they appear lies shattered in a foreign field that should forever be England, but patently is anything but.”

By 6am, less than five hours after the Times put it online, a remarkably similar story had appeared on Mail Online, the world’s biggest and most successful English-language website with 200 million unique visitors a month.

It began: “Despite being etched with the immortal line: ‘Their name liveth for evermore’, the truth could not be further from the sentiment for the memorials in the Commonwealth War Cemetery in Amara.”

The article ran under the byline of someone called Euan McLelland, who describes himself on his personal website as a “driven, proactive and reliable multi-media reporter”. Alas, he was not driven or proactive enough to visit Iraq himself. His story was lifted straight from mine – every fact, every quote, every observation, the only significant difference being the introduction of a few errors and some lyrical flights of fancy. McLelland’s journalistic research extended to discovering the name of a Victoria Cross winner buried in one of the cemeteries – then getting it wrong.

Within the trade, lifting quotes and other material without proper acknowledgement is called plagiarism. In the wider world it is called theft. As a freelance, I had financed my trip to Iraq (though I should eventually recoup my expenses of nearly £1,000). I had arranged a guide and transport. I had expended considerable time and energy on the travel and research, and had taken the risk of visiting a notoriously unstable country. Yet McLelland had seen fit not only to filch my work but put his name on it. In doing so, he also precluded the possibility of me selling the story to any other publication.

I’m being unfair, of course. McLelland is merely a lackey. His job is to repackage and regurgitate. He has no time to do what proper journalists do – investigate, find things out, speak to real people, check facts. As the astute media blog SubScribe pointed out, on the same day that he “exposed” the state of Iraq’s cemeteries McLelland also wrote stories about the junior doctors’ strike, British special forces fighting Isis in Iraq, a policeman’s killer enjoying supervised outings from prison, methods of teaching children to read, the development of odourless garlic, a book by Lee Rigby’s mother serialised in the rival Mirror, and Michael Gove’s warning of an immigration free-for-all if Britain brexits. That’s some workload.

Last year James King published a damning insider’s account of working at Mail Online for the website Gawker. “I saw basic journalism standards and ethics casually and routinely ignored. I saw other publications’ work lifted wholesale. I watched editors...publish information they knew to be inaccurate,” he wrote. “The Mail’s editorial model depends on little more than dishonesty, theft of copyrighted material, and sensationalism so absurd that it crosses into fabrication.”

Mail Online strenuously denied the charges, but there is plenty of evidence to support them. In 2014, for example, it was famously forced to apologise to George Clooney for publishing what the actor described as a bogus, baseless and “premeditated lie” about his future mother-in-law opposing his marriage to Amal Alamuddin.

That same year it had to pay a “sizeable amount” to a freelance journalist named Jonathan Krohn for stealing his exclusive account in the Sunday Telegraph of being besieged with the Yazidis on northern Iraq’s Mount Sinjar by Islamic State fighters. It had to compensate another freelance, Ali Kefford, for ripping off her exclusive interview for the Mirror with Sarah West, the first female commander of a Navy warship.

Incensed by the theft of my own story, I emailed Martin Clarke, publisher of Mail Online, attaching an invoice for several hundred pounds. I heard nothing, so emailed McLelland to ask if he intended to pay me for using my work. Again I heard nothing, so I posted both emails on Facebook and Twitter.

I was astonished by the support I received, especially from my fellow journalists, some of them household names, including several victims of Mail Online themselves. They clearly loathed the website and the way it tarnishes and debases their profession. “Keep pestering and shaming them till you get a response,” one urged me. Take legal action, others exhorted me. “Could a groundswell from working journalists develop into a concerted effort to stop the theft?” SubScribe asked hopefully.

Then, as pressure from social media grew, Mail Online capitulated. Scott Langham, its deputy managing editor, emailed to say it would pay my invoice – but “with no admission of liability”. He even asked if it could keep the offending article up online, only with my byline instead of McLelland’s. I declined that generous offer and demanded its removal.

When I announced my little victory on Facebook some journalistic colleagues expressed disappointment, not satisfaction. They had hoped this would be a test case, they said. They wanted Mail Online’s brand of “journalism” exposed for what it is. “I was spoiling for a long war of attrition,” one well-known television correspondent lamented. Instead, they complained, a website widely seen as the model for future online journalism had simply bought off yet another of its victims.