Blogging about campus tragedy: public service or exploitation?

niu.gifI have to tip my hat to Kevin Guidry of Mistaken Goal for prompting this post. In his comment on Friday’s post about the Northern Illinois University shooting, Kevin brought up some good points about these kinds of blog entries.

There seems to be a difference between “covering major news event in my area of expertise” and “using a tragedy as a means to establish how hip and up-to-date I am, please bookmark my blog and heighten my reader count!” I’m not always sure on which side of that line many blogs fall and the very idea of exploiting an event like this is quite sickening. I’m not pointing any fingers or naming any names as I’m not thinking of anyone in particular but it’s something that should be acknowledged and discussed in the open.

I agree, Kevin. So let’s discuss it.

But first, a bit of perspective on my decision to post about this incident.

When I first got word about the shooting on Thursday afternoon, I was putting the finishing touches on a snarky, self-serving entry about this site’s status as a top referrer to a recently launched blog aggregator. I was taking a Stephen Colbert “I made you!” tone in this particular post. It isn’t a tone I often assume, but on Thursday I was feeling playful, cocky about my status as a top referrer, and anxious to gloat.

Then I was told about the shooting, and I knew that my original plan for the Thursday blog post would have to be set aside. How could I in good conscience post my Colbertesque entry when such a tragedy had just occurred?

So I decided instead to post a link to the CNN story and a screen shot of the NIU website as it looked at that moment. I did so because:

  1. I wanted to appear relevant
  2. in light of this breaking news event. This isn’t a news blog by any stretch, but if news breaks that pertains to the subject of higher ed marketing and communication — and campus shootings qualify, in my view — and I happen to be in a position to post links to the news source or any other useful information, I will do so. I was educated to become a journalist, and I spent enough time in the news business that it’s “in my blood,” as they say. And I am at heart a writer. I love to write, and to report.

    But tied to this notion of relevancy is the “cool blog” factor that Kevin Guidry alludes to. One of the reasons I blog at all is because I want to be read, recognized, noticed and, yes, linked to. I think every writer (and blogger) shares that same need. One of the things I loved most about my journalism and writing career was to see my byline, or my name on the cover of a book. I still get a rush out of seeing my name on a byline in our alumni magazine. I even like seeing my name linked from other blogs. I’m egotistical. I probably need help.

    But I don’t think I’m alone. I’m reminded of a William Faulkner quote that I take to heart:

    Since man is mortal, the only immortality possible for him is to leave something behind him that is immortal… This is the artist’s way of scribbling “Kilroy was here” on the wall of the final and irrevocable oblivion through which he must someday pass.

    So, yes, I have the kind of ego that desires recognition. Guilty as charged. But does that mean I have exploited a tragedy for my own personal gratification? Before you judge, please, read on.

  3. I wanted to capture the moment.
  4. Just as traditional journalism is described as the first draft of history, so blogging or journalism might be considered. I still have old paper journals in which I jotted down my thoughts of historical events — the L.A. riots after the Rodney King trial, for instance — that capture what I was thinking at that moment in time. Those journals remain private (for now) but one day they may contribute to or form the basis for my memoirs. Who can tell? The difference between blogging in public and writing in private journals is just that: one is public, the other private. Often, however, we bloggers tend to project our personalities, our personal thoughts and our personal biases into our posts. Few bloggers take on the role of objective, just-the-facts-Ma’am reporters. We want to offer our opinions and thoughts about events, to show that we are part of a larger story, a bigger picture, a metanarrative that is unfolding. We are storytellers as well as actors in this story. All the world’s a stage and all that. And we want to capture events, present our perspectives on them, as they occur. Again, is this self-aggrandizing or exploitative? Maybe so. I mean, any blogger who publicly refers to his future memoirs probably harbors some delusions of grandeur.

  5. I wanted to show the screenshot
  6. to illustrate how the campus immediately handled its online communications. Many readers of this blog deal with crisis communications issues, and I thought it might be useful to them. Again, am I providing a public service? Or am I trying to portray myself as an expert in crisis communications analysis? Maybe a little bit of both. Am I capitalizing on tragedy in order to try to build my own reputation in the blogosphere? The cynic would say, Of course.

So, those are some of my thoughts about why I first posted about the NIU shooting. The reasons for my second post are similar. As for why Karine Joly or Brad Ward or Deanna Woolf or any other higher ed blogger posted about the tragedy, I cannot say. Nor can I say why other higher ed bloggers chose not to post about the tragedy. Maybe some of them will comment here to let us know. Or maybe they’ll post on their own blogs.

Now playing: Dengue Fever – Tiger Phone Card
via FoxyTunes


Author: andrewcareaga

Higher ed PR and marketing guy. Communications director for Missouri University of Science and Technology (Missouri S&T) in Rolla, Missouri, USA. Slow runner, mediocre guitarist, lover of music and puns, and an avid St. Louis Cardinals fan. I blog and Tweet about #highered, #music, #gocards and #random stuff.

9 thoughts on “Blogging about campus tragedy: public service or exploitation?”

  1. Andy, just for the record, I’m going to quote here what I wrote on my post:

    “There are some blog posts I would rather not write. This is one of them, but as I did at the time of the Virginia Tech Tragedy, I think it’s important for the higher ed web and communication community to keep a record of the way NIU is handling this tragic event.”

    When I read Kevin’s comment, it reminded me the following comment posted on my blog on April 18, 2007 by BillyBob (anonymously, in this case):

    “Wow, you didn’t waste much time in capitalizing on a tragedy for your personal blogging fodder, did you? Six posts and counting…

    Don’t you think a respectful pause might have been more appropriate?”

    Let me tell you that it hurt a lot at that time, but this is what I replied:

    “BillyBob, I understand.

    This might look like a lot to an outsider, but what you call a “personal blog” serves a community composed of people working in universities and colleges (including Virginia Tech Web Communication Director who asked me to relay a message to his colleagues in other institutions – #5 of my 6 posts).

    I might be wrong, but I think one of the ways to honor the victims’ memory is to do what we can to help prevent this type of tragedy on other campuses.

    I blog.”

    This was my answer 10 months ago, and it still applies today.

    When I heard about NIU – Thursday around midnight when coming back from a class – I wondered if I should post. Friday morning when I saw what the NIU team did, I thought it was important to keep a record of it, so others could use that information when the topic comes up at their institutions.

    Incidentally, I wrapped up my April 2008 column about what I call “911 websites” last Wednesday where I wrote the following:

    “Over the past 12 months, many things have been said, written and done to find better ways to send emergency notifications to the campus community in IHE’s across the US and Canada. With the help of vendor solutions, numerous universities and colleges have now a system in place to quickly alert their students, faculty and staff members in case of an emergency via phone, text-messages or email.

    But, how many institutions have taken the time to build the light version of their homepage that could make the difference between a functioning website and a non-deliverable web page the day a major crisis strikes?

    Not enough.”

    I actually take this topic at heart as I think these websites that don’t cost millions of dollars can make a big difference for parents, friends and the larger community when something like that happens.

    A day earlier, Tuesday, I finally sent the contract scheduling for May 7 an upcoming webinar with Mike Dame from Virginia Tech on how to prepare your crisis/emergency web template.

    With what happened at NIU, I found myself in a very hard place as to when it will be appropriate to start to promote this webinar — without looking opportunistic.

    Now, as far as increased web traffic is concerned, believe me or not, but I couldn’t care less. My blog already has an established readership (hey, I spent 3 years building it). I see my blog as an extension of my previous journalistic career. Covering tragedies isn’t what I liked when I was a reporter and it isn’t today either, but I believe I have a “duty” to do it.

    So now can we please go back to regular blogging?

  2. I think this is a good discussion on the part of everyone. I started out as a newspaper reporter and do relate to your points, Andrew. I appreciate your candor and everyone’s point of view. Mostly I appreciate the honesty.

  3. You asked why some of us would NOT cover the NIU story. I’ll give you my take. I’m one of the “higher ed” bloggers, but I also want to stick with the niche I started out with, which is primarily alumni relations. Karine and you, and others who have a communications focus should post about these stories in these ways you have. For me, there is not an immediate connection between a tragic news story like this and the alumni relations aspect of higher ed. So I don’t really have much to add to the online discussion via my self-constrained channel.

    My blog isn’t a “news blog” – unless the news is about alumni relations (an example might be a state Attorney General taking legal action against alumni associations over their commercial partnerships, or an alumni association suing its alma mater). So I’m not going to “report” what others can and do blog about more effectively than I would.

    Down the road, if there is something connected with a story like Virginia Tech or NIU that also has an alumni-related angle, I will write about it. Otherwise, I won’t.

  4. I echo a bit of Andy’s comments: my blog is not and never will be a breaking news blog. I’m lucky if I update once a day some times :)

    I speak at least for myself and some others in the higher ed blogging community when I say this: many of us do what we do out of love.

    I sure don’t get paid or make any kind of ad revenue from my blogging (or the number of hits I receive). Do I feel great when I have more than 30 people a day check my blog? Yeah. Is that my only goal in blogging? No.

    I blog because I’m passionate about what I do. I like to share ideas, talk about my experiences, learn from others, and just have a little corner of cyberspace that’s “mine.”

    Most of the blogs written on this subject I’ve seen have approached the NIU situation with those same goals: to share with others what they feel about the tragedy, to communicate ideas/information about how the situation was handled, and to talk about feelings and reactions.

    In fact, I’d say that the higher ed blogging community is one of the least self-serving I’ve encountered in my journeys on cyberspace. I think it speaks well of our profession and our industry.

    I thank the poster whose original comment sparked the discussion. Unfortunately, with everything going on in the world, I don’t think it’s the first or last time bloggers will be questioned about exploiting a tragedy.

  5. Wow! Just for the record I mentioned the tragedy in my blog as a public sympathy to stretch my heart out to the individuals, family, and community affected. I linked to this blog because there was good information and relevant links to other news sources. Also it never crossed my mind that Andrew was blogging about this story for personal reasons. He was showing his concern about the situation and using his presence as a well respected and followed blogger to provide awareness and share his concern.

    One of the things that I didn’t see mentioned anywhere is that this is a blog about higher education marketing, is not part of higher ed marketing handling of news? Should a tragedy like this affect any campus the long term marketing implications are imaginable and understanding how to handle a situation like this is part of the responsibility. News like this has just as much impact, if not significantly more, on the marketing of a college as a significant jump in the rankings of US News college rankings! Understanding and being prepared for a situation like this is part of the challenge.

  6. First, thanks to Andy for making this post and creating a forum for discussion.

    Second, I reiterate that my original point was *not* that any particular person was exploiting these events for personal gain. It’s a constant danger and something we should all keep in mind no matter what topic we’re writing about in a public forum.

    Third, I assert that the title Andy used for this post is a false dichotomy. I think we all recognize that many of our blog posts have aspects of both self-interest and collegial sharing of useful information (although I’m not sure that I’d go so far as to characterize it as “public service”). Further, I don’t even intend to characterize all self-interest as negative. We all write in public venues because it serves to advance our causes, our interests, and ourselves. That’s only human and to characterize all activities with some tinge of selfishness as negative would be to condemn nearly every activity undertaken in the history of humanity.

    My point is an ethical one: How do we balance our desire to advance ourselves and our interests with other ethical interests? I think that collectively we do a pretty good job successfully balancing those interests. But we should never stop raising the question, examining how well we’re balancing these issues, and advancing and revisiting the discussion in very public ways (particularly as new voices join the conversation and we work to express to them our cultural and ethical norms).

    Finally, to answer Andy’s question: I have not written about this incident because it is not directly related to the topics I choose to write about in my blog.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s