Technology plays unique role in coverage of bridge collapse

Jake Grovum

While news outlets rushed to the scene of the Interstate 35W bridge collapse, a number of citizens armed with their own personal cameras took coverage of the event into their own hands.

A number of amateur photographs and video clips have been used by local and national news outlets in their coverage of the collapse. These images, taken by University students and alumni and other citizens, have provided some of the first glimpses of the accident.

Assistant journalism professor at the University and Daily Board of Directors member Donald Brazeal calls this “participatory journalism.”

“When you’ve got dozens or hundreds of people who have cameras, video cameras, pencil and paper that are out on the scene, there is an opportunity to get things in a much more timely fashion,” Brazeal said.

Another aspect of participatory journalism, especially via the Internet, is the way news is disseminated to the public, Brazeal said.

“It has an effect on the spread of the information,” he said. “When something happens in Minneapolis, the word that it happened gets spread even faster than it did when some people were listening to radio and television.”

Participatory journalism is not without its drawbacks, Brazeal said. But concerns over conflicting reports have existed long before the first digital camera was ever produced.

“I think it can be confusing for people if they start getting information from multiple, different sources,” Brazeal said. “It’s conflicting; which source do they depend on? But to some extent that has always existed.”

Citizen journalists

University graduate Mark Lacroix had just returned from work to his 20th-floor apartment in the Riverview Apartments when the bridge collapsed.

Lacroix looked out his window and saw a scene he described as “a very surreal experience, in a word: unbelievable.”

“Because of the construction that we all know about it seemed as though it was Ö a controlled explosion,” he said. “Maybe it was something else, just maybe, maybe, maybe, it’s not what it was.”

From his window, Lacroix snapped six pictures of the catastrophic scene.

“It was moments after the thing fell and it was really just so people knew what the hell happened,” he said. “That’s really all it was about, just to get it out there.”

CNN has been showing his photos “day and night” since he sent them following the collapse, Lacroix said.

While cleanup efforts continue in the Mississippi River, Lacroix’s view of the scene remains.

“That’s the worst part,” he said. “I still see it; I have to close my blinds because it’s not pretty.”

Management and German senior Brad Paulson was also one of the first to document the wreckage. He rushed to the site from his downtown apartment.

“I really didn’t think about that I was one of the first people on the scene with a camera,” he said. “There was some feeling that I had Ö that the situation is under control.”

After capturing the scene, Paulson was interviewed by Fox News about his contribution, although he said he feels like those who were directly affected by the collapse deserve to tell their stories more than he does.

“It’s just nice that the photos from different angles are getting out there so that the public at large can see it,” Paulson said. “But I can’t take any claim for it.”

University graduate Dan Berdal first responded to the bridge collapse to try to help, but when he saw emergency personnel working he decided to put his camera to use.

“For people to be able to take pictures and tell their story, it was kind of a way to grieve, kind of a way to tell what their part in this whole situation was,” he said.

In addition to being a tragic event, the bridge’s absence will also affect travel for many in the area.

“It’s part of everyday life. You get onto 35W to go to the grocery store,” Berdal said. “(It’s) really a significant part of this campus so I guess people almost have a relationship with a bridge in a weird way.”

Facebook aids in aftermath

An hour after the collapse, communications studies junior Laura Gatz started a Facebook group to keep information updated.

“Right away when everything was breaking I had editors from the AP and various newspapers going ‘Do you have any actual news? Were you there?'” Gatz said. “It’s like ‘No, no, no, I’m sorry, I’m just a concerned citizen who wanted to help get the news out.’ “

The group now has more than 10,500 members and more than 100 photos associated with the collapse.

“A conventional news site Ö they’re going at it from specifically a news standpoint,” Gatz said. “We’re going at it from, you know, this is the latest information that’s out there combined with discussion.”

Gatz was out of town the weekend following the collapse and recruited other members of the group to keep the site updated. University graduate Drew Sandquist, who now lives in Washington, D.C., answered the call.

“It’s a clearinghouse for information, a central point to find out things,” Sandquist said. “For others it’s a place of mourning, remembrance.”

Sandquist also said Facebook coverage of an event like this allows readers to gather information and have their own input.

“It allows discussion, which I think is important,” he said. “Some people need to figure out why things happen and they need to be able to ask their own questions.”

Apart from providing information, Facebook was used as a way to check in on friends in the area while cell phone networks were down.

“You could get on the Internet just fine, so instead of just trying to sit there and call through everyone, I figured I’d just do that,” biology senior Greg Strand said. “Plus it would kind of free up the lines for others too, like emergency personnel.”

Following the collapse, Strand created the group to check on his friends in the area and to let people know he was OK.

“Especially for college kids, since everyone is already on it, I think it’s a great way to be able to connect with everyone and make sure everyone’s all right,” Strand said. “People can go on and talk about their feelings Ö their opinions can be expressed on it, I think it’s a good avenue to be able to discuss these kinds of things.”

-Mike Rose contributed to this report.