Student media and campus shootings

During the recent US college shootings, the campus paper has been the first media outlet on the scene and the first to get substantive reporting out.

Last week’s shooting at Northern Illinois University was no exception. The New York Times and Chicago’s Daily Herald both ran stories about the student newspaper in their weekend editions following the shooting.

The NYT story notes that the editor of the NIU student newspaper had conversed with the editor of the Virginia Tech student newspaper and had a plan in place for the NIU student newspaper. This plan enabled the paper to quickly gather information and only eight hours later, get a special print issue out. They were prepared for the shooting and got the information students needed into their hands before the national media outlets even got there satellite trucks off the freeway.

As campus shootings and violence seem to be becoming more common, should campus newspapers in Canada prepare themselves for one to occur on their campus? I believe the answer is yes.

In a tragic event on campus, students need somewhere to turn to get information. They need a source they can trust. The reality is that university websites will only provide "safe information." They will not provide much more than generic statements. Students want and need more than that. They could turn to Facebook, but who’s making sure the information there is true?

The only people in the position to provide the information that students need are the staff of the campus student newspaper. The local media won’t do it. The national media will be too focused trying to figure out why it happened and what it means nationally. Plus, the mainstream media will likely be lost on the campus somewhere; they don’t know the landscape.

In short, campus papers must be ready for a shooting incident, they must have procedures in place to ensure quality control, and they must be able to get information out in a timely manner.

But papers shouldn’t just be planning to react to a shooting. Think of all the other events that could happen on campus. Is your paper prepared to cover a chemical spill? How about a residence incident such as a major fire or even flooding? A mumps breakout? A student protest gone wrong?

Do you have contact information for the local police force? How about the fire department? Do you have somebody in the university communications department who is dedicated to providing you with information before they do media briefing with off-campus media outlets? Can your current web hosting arrangement handling a flood of traffic?

These are just some of the questions that student editors don’t want to be trying to answer on a day when your fellow students need you to find more important information.

Planning for these things is not something we like to do, but it is necessary. If given the choice, I would love to write stories about fuzzy cute kittens everyday. Sadly, the world does not provide fuzzy cute kitten stories — it provides the kind of stories that we see on the front page everyday.