"Hokie Pride" Motivates Virginia Tech Student Paper's Coverage of Tragedy

Robert Bowman recently faced the biggest news coverage challenge of his young life.

Robert Bowman recently faced the biggest news coverage challenge of his young life.

Robert — known as Bobby by his friends — was scheduled to become managing editor of the Collegiate Times at Virginia Tech on April 17, a day after the massacre there. Bowman had been in training for two weeks to learn about the post. The 21-year-old junior’s previous experience: the Collegiate Times’ head copy editor and editor-in-chief of the Boston College High School newspaper. He had never covered a violent event before.

His editor in chief, Amie Steele, had been on the job for only three weeks.

So, to cover a story with international implications, Bowman said that he, Steele and the Collegiate Times’ staff depended on instinct and on their love for the Virginia Tech community. They also relied on their student adviser, Kelly Furnas.

“We understood that we were a lot closer to the story. We’re still students, too,” he said.

Virginia Tech is the latest in a string of tragedies in recent times to occur during the month of April. The list includes Columbine, the Oklahoma City bombing, the Branch Davidian siege in Waco, Texas, and the Port Arthur massacre in Tasmania, an island just off the southern coast of Australia.

Last year, I visited Port Arthur to speak to journalists and others as part of the 10th anniversary of the April 28 massacre in which Martin Bryant killed 35 people. Bryant, considered a loner who disliked others, killed anyone within sight, from children to parents to couples who had made their way to the popular tourist site where the British, in the 1800s, shipped those whom they considered their worst prisoners.

All of the people who died that day in 1996 came to the public place with no idea of the events that would transpire that day. All were leading private lives until they became part of the public spectacle that Martin Bryant created.

Sound familiar?

This year, on April 16, a gunman now known as “Cho” killed 32 students and professors at Virginia Tech before killing himself. Seung-Hui Cho was like Bryant in many ways (except that Bryant was captured before he killed himself and now sits in prison in Hobart, Tasmania). Journalist Dave Cullen has noted that Cho felt he was a kindred spirit to Harris and Klebold, the teenage killers at Columbine.

Cho’s massacre became the worst in U.S. history, and only second to Bryant’s massacre in world history.

Since the massacre, Bobby Bowman’s life has been a blur, from working on the Collegiate Times, to speaking for the first time on the tragedy, to preparing for upcoming coverage of it in his summer role as editor in chief. I spent several hours with Bowman in preparing for a recent National Writers Workshop presentation in Wichita, Kansas.

You won’t talk to Bowman for very long before he starts talking enthusiastically about his love for Virginia Tech. This is not especially surprising once you learn that he is president of the Hokie Ambassadors, a group of students who give campus tours to prospective students. In the aftermath of the massacre and working 63 hours in four days at the student newspaper, Bowman even found time to give a tour to two students who had to make a decision before May about whether to attend Virginia Tech.

After the tour with Bowman, both decided to attend the university in Blacksburg.

“It’s the most amazing campus that I’ve ever seen,” Bowman, who was wearing a maroon golf shirt with the letters “VT” emblazoned on the chest during the workshop presentation, said about his first visit to the university. “Everyone was proud to be a Hokie. This was a long time before the tragedy.”

This type of spirit may have motivated the Collegiate Times’ approach to its coverage, which has been praised for its ability to break news as well as help its community recover from the tragedy.

Examples can be seen in how the Collegiate Times handled the first week of coverage. On Tuesday, April 17, the front page carried a large photo of students holding hands in a circle with the headline “HEARTACHE” in bold letters. One subhead told about the shooting devastating the Virginia Tech community while the other said “OUR SORROW, OUR RESOLVE” with a paragraph from the newspaper staff under it. It also contained a timeline of the day’s events.

Bowman said the student staff stayed up all night to produce the historic 16-page edition and finished it by 6 a.m., just in time for it to be printed and distributed by 9 a.m. April 17. The web edition of the Collegiate Times, which received millions of hits, also used a running blog to update the news during the initial aftermath of the tragedy.

Other editions contained headlines such as “Beginning to heal” on Thursday, April 18, and “What’s next?” on April 19. The “What’s next?” page carried a graphic shaped into a memorial ribbon and listed all the questions that students might ask about the massacre and its aftermath.

The Collegiate Times also produced its first Monday edition in its 103-year history, Bowman said.

All of this was accomplished despite the constant calls from national media and the fact that the student reporters were leaving because classes had been canceled and parents wanted their children home.

“We stressed to people that if they needed to go home, they should,” said Bowman, who called his mother first and then friends after initially hearing about the first of the killings. “My greatest concern after thinking about my friends was ... for the rest of the staff. We were not going to make anyone stay ... .

“Random people then stepped up.” Bowman mentioned several people, such as sportswriter T. Rees Shapiro and News Editor Saira Haider, who lost a friend in the massacre, as among those staff members.

He also noted that newspaper adviser Furnas was instrumental in helping the Virginia Tech journalists cover the tragedy’s aftermath. One example, Bowman said, was that Furnas gave the students an impromptu 30- to 45-minute workshop on how to approach and cover victims before they began writing the 32 vignettes on the victims’ lives.

“We did a good job of covering it not only for the victims but especially for their families. It was close to all of us.”

In all of its initial coverage, the Collegiate Times carried only one photo of Cho Seung-Hui: one of an image of him that was shown during an NBC-TV telecast. It was based on the videos and photos that Cho sent to NBC and was on Page 2 of the Thursday, April 19, edition.

“We started getting sick of the images ... about an hour after they came out. We knew that we didn’t want to give him as much play as he wanted,” Bowman said. “We toyed with the idea of not using his name at all. But we wanted readers to understand who this wacko was.”

As he leads the Collegiate Times this summer and continues as managing editor this fall, Bowman said he yearns for the day when the student newspaper doesn’t mention April 16. However, he doesn’t know when that “normal” will return, if ever.

For now, he’ll have to reflect on and continue to cover another April tragedy that has gripped the world, most especially the college community that he loves.

(Joe Grimm, the recruiting and development editor for the Detroit Free Press, has written a column based on Joe Hight’s discussion with Bobby Bowman at the National Writers Workshop in Wichita. Click here to read the Collegiate Times’ latest coverage, including a story by Bobby Bowman. Click here to read the Roanoke Times’ extensive coverage of the tragedy.)