Students at West Virginia University celebrated their snow day by amassing in concert-sized crowds on a steep hill just off campus, drinks in hand. One student cut through the crowd on a sled flying down off a ramp at the bottom of the hill. Another came down on skis, another on a bike, another a kayak. Joe Severino, the news editor of the WVU student newspaper, The Daily Athenaeum (The DA), recorded the chaos and posted the video of harmless fun on twitter.
Then the street was blocked. Students threw empty beer bottles. Someone started a fire. The police were called to break up the crowd. When the students didn’t respond, they took drastic measures — blaring sound at the crowd, then firing pepper balls, and finally smoke bombs.
Suddenly it wasn’t a drunken mass — it was a “riot,” the Washington Post declared, that had to be dispersed with police violence.
The videos were shared by news outlets everywhere. CBS featured the footage from Twitter. The Washington Post published a story titled “How a drunken college snow day turned into a ‘riot’ that police broke up with smoke grenades” and interspersed quotes from police statements with student footage from Severino and The DA. While unable to get student quotes, the Post had student footage, and the online story provided a perspective otherwise unable to be recorded. Social media and student reporters helped provide a more complete picture of the scene. A full video can be found on The DA’s twitter.
The DA provides yet another example of big news starting small — of locals catching something interesting and the story “going viral.” Small-town papers spotlight a local event in the news, referencing things like yearbook photos, old headlines they previously reported, and the research becomes vital later. These facts are then picked up by national news sources and circulated, providing national reporters with overviews and original documents they wouldn’t have access to otherwise.
In addition to providing students with reporting and journalistic experience, student newspapers provide resources for larger corporations to access, and on-the-ground reporting on what may become a national story in unexpected ways. Social media also offers faster, further distribution of resources that professionals can use. This mass communication causes students to reach for their phone cameras in life-threatening situations.
With the dwindling number of local newspapers, it is becoming more and more common to rely on “citizen journalism,” often found through social media. National news needs resources provided by smaller, local news and on-the-ground footage. Civilians provide that. Students provide that. The credibility of a student newspaper and even informal journalistic training makes that perspective more valuable.
When Severino raised his smartphone to record students coughing, struggling to run over the snow from smoke that billowed up into the air, he probably didn’t know that what he was capturing would be national news in a few hours. What he did know was that this was history happening in his college town, and he had to record it- it was his job as an editor for the DA to do so. What he did know was he was far from his original assignment to record a crowd of students sledding down a hill. But that’s no surprise; after all, big news starts small.