Colorado Theater Massacre Gets Breaking-News Treatment on Social Media

The Aurora, Colo. theater shooting illustrates the power of social-media reporting

By Jon Schuppe
|  Friday, Jul 20, 2012  |  Updated 4:26 PM EDT
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Aurora, Colo., Cinema Rampage Remembered

Immediately after the Aurora, Colo. theater shooting, a running timeline of the massacre and its aftermath sprung up on Reddit.

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One of the most compelling accounts of the Aurora, Colo., theater massacre can be found not on any conventional news outlet but on Reddit, a social news website in which a member nicknamed integ3r began posting soon after the gunfire stopped.

“Denver resident here,” integ3r wrote. “Reddit, I'm doing my best to update this.”

The first post, presumably taken from broadcasts of police radio communications, sets the tone.

1:27: "Bring as much crime scene tape as you can"

What follows is dry but chilling narrative that continues to be updated, in real time (and often without fact checking), by not only integ3r but other Reddit members, drawing from all sorts of sources: police communications, television live streams, newspaper reports, Facebook, Twitter, you name it.

Welcome to breaking crime news, 2012 social-media style.

While traditional news outlets scrambled to confirm and understand what happened inside Theater 9 of the Century 16 Multiplex, witnesses were uploading pieces of their stories. Reporters at the scene added what they were seeing and hearing. Reporters not at the scene chased witnesses for more comment. A twitter hashtag, #theatershooting, sprang up. So did a Wikipedia page. Before long the Aurora police and fire communications became available online as well.

Friends of those killed shared went online to share their grief. That’s how the world first learned that one of the victims was Jessica Ghawi, an aspiring sports reporter from Texas whose last post to Twitter was “MOVIE DOESN’T START FOR 20 MINUTES.”

Back on Reddit, a witness posting as Peener 13 went to her online community for solace. “Someone came into our theater at the midnight release of Dark Knight Rises and began opening fire,” Peener 13 wrote. “Who here on Reddit can help me calm my nerves?”

Not long after, a victim calling himself – unfortunately – themurderator snapped bloody photos of himself, including what appears to be a gunshot wound. “i am one of the 50 wounded in the aurora theatre shooting,” he wrote. “here are a few photos of my very lucky but nonethless terrifying brush with death. my thoughts go out to those less fortunate than me.”

At last count, thousands of people had responded to those two posts. Comments on the Reddit tick-tock included a debate on social media's place in the future of news reporting. Some called the Reddit contributors "the professional journalists of tomorrow."

Others were less convinced, noting that much of the timeline was culled from work being done by emergency responders and traditional media. "I agree that (integ3r) is providing a tremendously valuable service by aggregating all of this info," ryanhgwu wrote. "But let's not confuse that with actual reporting."

On Friday afternoon, Buzzfeed identified integ3r as 18-year-old Morgan Jones. He told his interviewer that it was "liberating to be able to inform so many people so rapidly."

In a briefing to reporters on Friday afternoon, Aurora Police Chief Daniel Oates added his own skepticism, warning the press and the public not to rely on social media for information. "There are a lot of pranks," Oates cautioned.

But he also admitted that authorities were watching social media, too. Not looking for news, but clues.

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