- The Washington Times - Tuesday, April 17, 2007

Technology and citizen journalists played a pivotal role during massive coverage of the Virginia Tech shootings yesterday.

Video from a student’s cell phone and a windowsill Web cam provided a primitive live “feed” from the site of Monday’s massacre. Postings at student blogs offered visceral personal accounts, information about survivors and safety updates. The mainstream press — including National Public Radio, the Los Angeles Times, MTV and the Canadian Broadcasting Co. — mined the Internet blogs as a source for information and potential interviews.

One young man, however, nearly was swept away by it.

For a 24-hour period, firearms aficionado Wayne Chiang — a recent Asian-American graduate of the university — was touted as “the shooter” once his personal photographs were circulated on the Internet and ultimately before a global press.

A few days before the shootings, Mr. Chiang, 23, had posted pictures of himself posing with his own collection of semiautomatic weapons and Russian rifles at the social-networking Web site Facebook and blog site Livejournal, complete with references to a recent romantic failure.

It was all eerie coincidence.

Journalists monitoring the blogs tentatively linked Mr. Chiang with the bloody event — spawning an enormous but erroneous frenzy. Mr. Chiang, whose photos were viewed almost 300,000 times in the process, received death threats and accusations. He turned to ABC News and then CNN to set the record straight, and was unapologetic about his right to bear arms and his firearms collection.

He’d learned a lesson, though.

“I’m done. I think we should shift our attention to the tragedy down at Virginia Tech and not the ridiculousness of this Livejournal,” Mr. Chiang said yesterday. “My heart goes out to those down at Tech.”

The continual press reference to an unnamed “Asian” gunman irked some.

The 2,000-member Asian-American Journalist Association yesterday cautioned the press against “using racial identifiers unless there is a compelling or germane reason.” The San Francisco-based group added that “such mention serves only to unfairly portray an entire people.”

It’s part of the potential credibility clash between the Internet and journalism.

During national breaking stories, journalists are no longer able to “walk the scene” one-on-one with police and other officials, said Tom Rosenstiel, director of the Project for Excellence in Journalism. These days, the press tends to be “wrangled,” all in attendance at the same briefing, for the most part.

“Add to that multiple news organizations and fervent competition. Technology is offering the press a new venue in the crush. But if there’s a rush to judgment — like identifying a gun enthusiast as ‘the shooter’ — that’s a clear reminder that people are capable of leaping to conclusions,” he said. “Human nature can still interfere.”

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