Filmmakers document how Virginia Tech’s newspaper coped with horrific tragedy

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By DANIEL REIMOLD, the University of Tampa

“Documenting Disaster” is a must-see film for student journalists and their advisers.  The 45-minute documentary, the work of four very recent graduates of Christopher Newport University, offers a glimpse into the newsroom of The Collegiate Times, the student newspaper at Virginia Tech, in the immediate aftermath of the April 2007 shootings.

It is built atop the firsthand accounts of former Collegiate Times staffers and their former faculty adviser, Kelly Furnas, now Kansas State University’s associate director of student publications .  Together, they mounted a vigorous, real-time reporting operation that frequently scooped the national press and helped the Hokie community make sense of the chaos.  The film also features an interview with Larry Hincker, who faced a “media zoo” in the tragedy’s wake as head of Virginia Tech university relations.

The filmmaking team, who also collaborated as staffers at CNU’s student newspaper, The Captain’s Log, include Victoria Shirley (who served as Captain’s Log editor in chief), Samantha Thrift (news editor), Andrew Deitrick (online editor) and Cassandra Vinch (sports editor).

The film premiered with a pair of shows in mid-April at CNU– the second showing held on the four-year anniversary of the shootings central to the story.  According to Deitrick, approximately 100 people turned up at each show, including some family members of the student victims.  The full film is now available online at http://www.thecaptainslog.org/documentingdisaster.html.

The documentary reveals much about the newspaper faced not only in gathering information about the tragedy but also its internal debates over how to package what it did gather. The documentary discloses that a Collegiate Times photographer was temporarily held by police while trying to snap some shots.  It reveals the staff’s passionate debate over whether the student killer (who committed suicide) should be counted in its final tally of the dead and the staff decision early on that the Times should focus “on the community, instead of the massacre” to in some small measure contribute to the campus healing process.

In an interview, Shirley, Thrift, and Deitrick touched on what surprised, angered and saddened them most during the six-month filmmaking process, a journey which took them from Manhattan, Kan., to downtown Washington D.C.

Q: How did the idea for the film come about?

Thrift: The Captain’s Log went to Louisville for the ACP/CMA National College Media Convention [last October].  I went to a session where Kelly Furnas was speaking about how the newsroom handled April 16 [the date of the 2007 shootings].  After I saw it, it just hit me that it was a story that needed to be told. … Two of the victims (of the shootings) went to my high school, and my sister was a good friend with one of the victims and my best friend was a friend with the other victim.  And the shooter went to my high school, too. … Before that session, I hadn’t even thought about [the role of the Collegiate Times during the tragedy].  It was a completely new perspective, and that’s one of the reasons I was so taken aback by it.  I literally ran to my friends immediately after [the session] and told them everything about it.  It hit me, and I thought it might touch other people to hear the story, too.

Deitrick: We’re blessed by having a very awesome adviser [Dr. Terry Lee, associate professor of English and journalism at CNU] who hooked us up with some of his own research money.  It was an initial concern [money] but he said, ‘Don’t worry about it.  Whatever you’ve got to do, do it.’  And he also does documentaries, so equipment-wise and financially we were pretty good to go.

Q: How did you decide how to tell story?

Shirley: I would say our overall theme changed very quickly after we talked to Kelly Furnas.  Our initial perception was, ‘Wow, how were they able to separate themselves from [being both] students and journalists to cover the story?  They must have been such professionals to be able to do that.’  But once we mentioned that to Kelly Furnas, he said, ‘No, I encouraged them not to split themselves into two pieces and [instead] to be a member of the community and report on this and that’s what made their coverage ultimately different.’

Q: What particularly surprised you during filmmaking?

Shirley: I talked to Larry Hincker, who was the PR guy at the time.  I think as student journalists we always think it’s us and them, us and the administration.  We never stop to think about what the administration goes through.  And he was going through as much stress as the Collegiate Times staff members.  He wasn’t sleeping.  He was so caught up in the day as it was happening it didn’t even occur to him to email his family to get in touch with them until that night. . . . Something I also hadn’t really realized was just how cruel the national media was. . . . We’re all student journalists who aspire to have jobs in this industry later in life.  There were times I was watching just how insensitive the national media was and asking myself, ‘Could I do this?  Is this what I will turn into if I make it to the network level?’  It just disgusted me.  I think through all of it, it taught us, as journalists, what type of journalists we want to become and we’re not going to ever dehumanize.

Q: What were the emotional high and low points?

Thrift: My largest concern throughout the process was not being so involved in it that we became numb to the story.  That’s why I’m glad when we watch it, every time I see Nikki Giovanni’s speech [the famous “We Are Virginia Tech” poem reading], I still get chills.  That’s what was so important to me.  Even at the very end, we had a couple of victims’ family members come to the shows and some friends, and when I saw them being emotional my emotions came flooding back.

Deitrick: When we went out to Kansas to meet Kelly, we had a really casual dinner with him and then he pulled us into his office at night.  And here we are in the middle of nowhere – Manhattan, Kansas – and he pulls from the bottom of his bookshelf a stack of papers from the week [of the shootings].  And that’s when it became, for me, real.  Later on, [Samantha] and I went to see “Living for 32” [www.livingfor32.com], a documentary by one of the victims of the shooting who survived.  It’s about gun control. . . . At one point, it had a showing a few minutes from our school and we went there and several of the victims’ parents were there.  We were there promoting our own documentary, but we had time to speak to them and that was another one of those ‘wow’ moments where we’ve been looking at this on a computer screen and in our heads for most of the semester but here’s someone who’s really been through it and really knows the emotional toll from the whole thing.  Those kinds of things helped bring it to life for me personally.

Shirley: One of my main responsibilities was to find all the B-roll, all the national coverage, all of that.  Emotionally, it was tough, especially this one clip where we showed this student was obviously having a hard time keeping it together on camera and this CBS reporter kept poking him and poking him, trying to get tears for ratings and I just got so angry. … While editing, I cried watching the footage.  I’m the editor in chief of the newspaper here and just putting myself in [former Collegiate Times editor] Amie Steele’s shoes, it really hits home.  That’s what made it real for me.

Q: What was the post-production process like?

Shirley: We turned my living room, to my roommate’s dismay, into an editing hub.  We had two monitors and we lived in my living room for the month that was dedicated to post-production. Usually post-production takes the longest amount of time, but we weren’t blessed with the abundance of time because we wanted to premiere on April 16, so I would say most of us were editing eight to 10 hours a day for three weeks.  I personally can say that I definitely suffered in my academics because of it.  But this was my No. 1 priority.

Thrift: People would get tired of us using the excuse of the documentary for not hanging out.  [Laughs]

Shirley: In retrospect, it was all worth it.  I would do it again.

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