COMMENTS: Virginia Tech Massacre Breaks Records

The rampage through the campus of Virginia Tech by a lone gunman attracted record levels of coverage from the nightly newscasts. He killed 32 others, mostly as they attended class, before he ended it by shooting himself in the face. It was the deadliest single shooting spree in the nation's history. Fully 89% of the three-network newshole, 62 minutes in all, was devoted to this single story. It is only the third time since the attacks of September 11th, 2001, that the three newscasts have combined for more than an hour of coverage on their Story of the Day.

The carnage started shortly after dawn, according to NBC's Kevin Corke, at a freshman dormitory, where a female student and a resident assistant were shot to death. Then two hours later "on the opposite end of campus" a second shooting began in an engineering building of classrooms. It ended when the gunman killed himself before police could stop him. By noon "the horror of the second shooting spree begins to sink in as the death toll keeps rising." ABC's David Kerley (subscription required) commented on the "stunning sadness on campus." The highway leading down to the campus from northern Virginia is "packed with parents" coming to check that their child is safe.

The Virginia Tech campus shooting happened three days short of the eighth anniversary of the killings on the campus of Columbine High School in Littleton Colo. Back in 1999, that shooting left 15 dead and attracted a peak of 49 minutes of network coverage on a single night. By the way, the other two stories to receive at least a daily hour of coverage as a three-network total since 9/11 were the peak day of Hurricane Katrina and the electricity blackout that engulfed most of the northeast of the United States in August 2003.

CBS Evening News actually spent even more time than its 18 minutes on the story, lengthening its half-hour newscast to an hour--but for consistency's sake Tyndall Report monitored just the first half hour. NBC cut back on advertising by four minutes to provide more complete coverage. ABC, too limited its advertising content, but not because of the massacre: it had already committed itself to reduced commercials each Monday in the month of April.


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