The Case of Emily Hilscher: How the Blogosphere’s Journalistic Ethics Took Down Rumors Perpetuated by the Mainstream Press
Bloggers aren’t highly regarded for our journalistic ethics. We’re often maligned for not checking facts, publishing half-truths, running with innuendoes, and becoming one big echo chamber. All of these criticisms are not without their merit.
But sometimes the shoe is on the other foot. We all remember the way that the blogosphere called Dan Rather out on his damaging mistake regarding phony documentation about president Bush’s service during the Vietnam war. This week has presented another such opportunity, one that the blogosphere has attacked with relish.
Eighteen year-old Emily Hilscher was the first victim in last week’s tragic killing spree at Virginia Tech. She was an aspiring veterinarian who loved animals. Pictures show a sprightly girl with sparkling blue-green eyes. She was often photographed riding horses or goofing around with a silly expression on her face. She was beautiful and very compelling.
The mainstream media spent a great deal of time fixating on Hilscher because she was the first person killed in the massacre, and because the circumstances of her death made it look initially as though she was targeted specifically. The college and the police originally believed that the murders of Hilscher and her neighbor Ryan “Stack” Clark were an isolated domestic incident and questioned Hilscher’s boyfriend, Karl Thornhill at length.
Meanwhile, speculation in the mainstream media went way off track. Some mainstream papers speculated that Hilscher’s murder was the unfortunate result of a lover’s quarrel. Others went so far as to insinuate that some infidelity or cruel rejection on her part was the catalyst that set off gunman Seung-hui Cho’s murderous rampage. Wired cited but did not link to unspecified “news reports” that claimed, “Cho had been dating one of his first victims, student Emily Hilscher, and that she broke up with Cho two weeks ago.”
Hilscher’s friends, family and her boyfriend were thunderstruck. How could the media get it so wrong? And how could they say such things about the person they loved so much just days after she was brutally murdered?
Some bloggers perpetuated the rumors, but a critical mass resisted. Questions arose, aided by a Facebook group that became a hub of information for those who were seeking to distribute the real facts about Hilscher’s life and death. Some mainstream press venues also picked up the call for truth. A week later, very little doubt exists that Emily Hilscher was not involved with Cho.
Last week, I wrote that the most compelling information about the Virginia Tech tragedy could be found on blogs and social networks, rather than in the mainstream press. Now it appears that the most factual and relevant information about this senseless tragedy is also available in the new media, rather than the old.