Student Journalism Documentary Focuses on Collegiate Times Coverage of Virginia Tech Shootings

The best film I have seen this year has “Disaster” written all over it. “Documenting Disaster: A Campus Newspaper Pieces Together a Torn Community” is a 45-minute documentary about student journalists, by student journalists.

Beginning last October (after attending the ACP/CMA convention in Louisville), a four-student team at Christopher Newport University spent a large chunk of their senior year delving into an historic moment in contemporary college journalism history.  The students are all staffers for the CNU student newspaper, The Captain’s Log: Victoria Shirley (editor in chief), Samantha Thrift (news editor), Andrew Deitrick (online editor), and Cassandra Vinch (sports editor).

As the journalists-documentarians describe their film’s focus, “On April 16, 2007, the Virginia Tech community was struck by one of the largest shootings in American history. Student journalists of the Collegiate Times [Tech’s campus newspaper] reported alongside national media organizations– both as students and as journalist[s]– to help break the largest news story of the year.  This is their story.”

This story, simply put, is a triumph.  “Disaster” is a well-paced, high-minded doc. It is built atop the firsthand accounts of former Collegiate Times staffers and its former faculty adviser who together mounted a sustained, vigorous, real-time reporting operation that scooped the national press and helped students and staff make sense of the chaos.  The film also features an interview with Larry Hincker, who faced a “media zoo” in the aftermath of the shootings as head of university relations at Virginia Tech.

Among many other things, I learned from watching the film that a Collegiate Times photographer was temporarily held by police while trying to snap some shots.  I learned the staff passionately debated whether the student killer (who committed suicide) should be counted in its final tally of the dead.  I learned the staff decided early on that the paper should focus “on the community, instead of the massacre” to in some small measure contribute to the campus healing process.

These enlightenments– and the interviews that produced them– are set against sharply-edited snippets of mainstream media coverage and a hauntingly spare musical score.  I laughed.  I cried (in manly fashion, of course).  I immediately added the film to the syllabi for several of my fall classes.  To the j-profs reading, I suggest you do the same.

Coming up next . . . An interview with the filmmakers (brief bios below).

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  2. […] a team of students to produce, shoot, edit, and premiere a documentary about the the newspaper at Virginia Tech during the massacre in 2007. That required trips to Kansas, Virginia Tech, Washington DC, and northern Virginia. Because of my […]