Tech tragedy puts news divisions to test

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What began as a tragic story about a shooting at a Virginia Tech dormitory escalated to the worst mass shooting in U.S. history with at least 33 dead and another 15 wounded on the quiet university campus in Blacksburg, Va.

As the death toll jumped from one to 22 and then to 33 around midday on the East Coast, TV journalism moved into high gear. By the time the evening newscasts aired, most of TV news' big names were in Blacksburg or on their way.

It was a shocking echo of the school shootings at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colo., eight years ago this week, where 12 students and a teacher were murdered by two armed students, who also died. But unlike Columbine, where live video of the incident was televised worldwide, the Virginia Tech carnage took place without many initial details. Bad weather and distance from a major population center precluded aerial shots.

At CNN headquarters in Atlanta, news executives were in a meeting when the news trickled in. Correspondent Brianna Kieler was among the first wave of news teams dispatched to the scene when no one knew yet that the story was about to escalate beyond one dead and a campus lockdown.

ABC's "World News" executive producer Jon Banner said there were some who believed there was more to the story, but it wasn't until after noon that the signs turned ominous.

"There was some significant lag time in getting information, which was confusing for us but really heartbreaking and tragic for the people of that community," Banner said after Monday night's "World News" broadcast.

CNN vp Nancy Lane said an eyewitness on the air said that the school called a "code black." And then she was told about a video that had been sent to CNN.com via its I-Report citizens journalism initiative purportedly containing 27 gunshots heard outside Norris Hall, where the majority of the victims had been killed.

"We heard there was a shooting — one victim, seven injured — and then all of the sudden, out of the blue, someone said 20 fatalities," said Alex Wallace, executive producer of "NBC Nightly News." "It went from a growing story to a giant story."

NBC, ABC and CBS each broke into programming at about 12:20 p.m. EDT for the initial reports of 21 killed at the school; cable news began what would become saturation coverage, and the broadcast news divisions interrupted shows at least three more times as the story developed.

NBC's Brian Williams and ABC's Charles Gibson anchored their networks' first live reports; Kelly Wallace anchored on CBS as Katie Couric's plane was delayed returning back to New York because of the nor'easter that struck the East Coast on Sunday.

The decision was made soon after to send many of the network heavy hitters to Virginia, a decision complicated by the fact that the Sunday storm continued to mangle travel throughout the Northeast, including New York. NBC sent Williams as well as Matt Lauer and Meredith Vieira (who were set to host "Today" this morning from Blacksburg) plus new correspondent Tiki Barber, who grew up about a half-hour away from Blacksburg.

"It was very tough to find an open airport to take off from and an airport to land in," Wallace said. The network eventually chartered a plane from White Plains, N.Y., to Roanoke, Va., the only airport nearby that wasn't closed. NBC and ABC had limited commercial interruptions on their half-hour newscasts; CBS stretched its newscast to an hour.

Couric was diverted to southwest Virginia, where she anchored "CBS Evening News" and got interviews with several students. Harry Smith was scheduled to report today for CBS' "The Early Show."

ABC moved Terry Moran and John Donvan for a special one-hour "Nightline," plus Diane Sawyer, Robin Roberts and Chris Cuomo for this morning's "Good Morning America." ABC News elected to keep Gibson at the New York studio providing updates; he was scheduled to go to Virginia today. It was ABC whose reporting uncovered that the toll was more than 30, hours before it was officially confirmed.

"Given what we knew and when we knew it, this was going to be a story unfolding throughout the day, and who better to lead the coverage at that point than Charlie" in New York, Banner said.

There was a phenomenal amount of interest in the coverage of the school shooting online. A shaky video taken by Tech student Jamal Albarghouti drew at least 900,000 hits on CNN.com in the first several hours of its uploading as part of the network's I-Report. The video showed the scene outside Norris Hall, where many victims had been murdered, with the clear sound of 27 gunshots. Other networks also had video and pictures from the scene.

Fox News Channel's Bill Hemmer reported shortly after 3:30 p.m. EDT that Tech students had been uploading information to MySpace and Facebook "letting people know about their whereabouts and their condition" and read several entries from the social network communities.

Fox News dispatched Shepard Smith, Geraldo Rivera and Greta van Susteren to Blacksburg.

The news coverage would go on throughout the night and into today, with "Nightline" stretching to an hour and Williams and Ann Curry anchoring a special primetime "Dateline NBC" on the shootings. CBS planned a hourlong "48 Hours Mystery" on the shootings anchored by Couric tonight; ABC planned a special "Primetime" tonight as well.

Beyond the identity of the shooter and victims (which hadn't been released as of Monday night), journalists were gearing up for second- and third-day stories profiling the people involved and questioning the motives of the shooter as well as the initial response, which already has been heavily criticized.

Gibson noted in his closing piece that the idea that schools were a sanctuary had been shattered again Monday. And breaking with his tradition at the closing of the broadcast — in which he tells viewers he hopes they had a good day — he said: "I wish I could say this has been a good day. It hasn't."
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