Two Kent State University Professors Analyze how Journalists Mourn on Twitter

How do you mourn the loss of a loved one? Do you take your feelings to social media? Journalists from all over the country did when two of their own were killed in an on-air shooting in Roanoke, Virginia. School of Communication Studies assistant professor, Rekha Sharma, and School of Journalism and Mass Communication assistant professor, Gretchen Dworznik, worked to examine the conversation on Twitter as journalists remembered and honored the two WDBJ television reporters who lost their lives during a live broadcast in August 2015.

In the study titled, “An Epitaph in 140 Characters: A Uses and Gratifications Perspective of Twitter Use Following the Roanoke Shooting,” Dworznik and Sharma followed the hashtag #WeStandWithWDBJ to observe how the journalists processed the trauma and found two communication theories applied: Uses and Gratifications and Terror Management Theory. Even though it was created by journalists, this hashtag proved to be more of a memorial rather than news coverage.

“The conversation was one of solidarity and openly sincere and heartfelt condolences,” Sharma said, “It was something very different than how these journalists would usually cover a story. This was a special circumstance where they wanted to come together and remember the two victims.”

Throughout the conversation, Dworznik and Sharma identified four key themes: traditional grief, support, in-group and profession. They found traditional grief through memorials and grief language with tweets that featured statements like “Rest in Peace,” and “In honor of.” Support was found through messages from journalists all over the country to the WDBJ station. These messages featured sayings such as, “We are sending thoughts your way,” or “We stand with you.” In-group communication was shown through a connection that was made between the journalists in the conversation. Through messages that referenced teamwork or “one big family,” the journalists were building a connection allowing for a sense of community. The final theme found was profession, which was shown through messages that conveyed a sense of carrying on with the job of reporting the news despite possible danger.

“This conversation is so intriguing because broadcast journalists are trained to report, and this hashtag didn’t use any reporting,” Dworznik said. “It just organically happened, which is very powerful.”

As Dworznik and Sharma continued their research, they found some things that were missing from the conversation on Twitter. There was no acknowledgement of the woman who was the guest on air during the time of the shooting. Sharma said this may have been because the Chamber of Commerce official was not a journalist and therefore not a part of the professional community using this particular hashtag. There was also no discussion of the shooter despite the fact that he had been a former WDBJ employee. Both researchers explained that the journalists using #WeStandWithWDBJ may have been trying to keep the focus on the victims by electing not to mention the shooter, in effect disavowing him from the profession. 

“Journalism is a very competitive field,” Dworznik said. “It was surprising to see these journalists come together like they did to remember the victims with not one negative comment found. It was almost like the circling of the wagons electronically.”

Both professors agree that social media are powerful tools for helping people build communities and express a range of emotions.

“This study really builds a bridge between the two theories,” Sharma said. “For students, this shows how someone can apply theory outside of the classroom and extend it into real life to understand how and why different people use media for different reasons.”

On Monday, April 18, Dworznik presented the study at the Broadcast Education Association Conference in Las Vegas, Nevada. Dworznik and Sharma hope to publish their research to share their findings with other scholars interested in social media use, grief language and mass communication theory.

POSTED: Tuesday, April 26, 2016 09:40 AM
Updated: Saturday, December 3, 2022 01:02 AM
Alexa Thomas