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JOURN Professor Ledford’s Tornado Story Goes Viral with More Than 3 Million Views at Weather.com

12/2/2013  12:00 pm

Assistant Professor of Journalism Charles “Stretch” Ledford’s story and photos of Washington, Ill, tornado survivor Jon Byler Dann finding his dog buried in the rubble of his family’s home has been picked up by news organizations and web sites around the world.  Originally commissioned for The Weather Channel, the story received 3,050,973 page views during the first week it was posted at Weather.com. The photos have also been licensed to and distributed by NBC’s Nightly News with Brian WilliamsTIME.comTheTodayShow.comHuffingtonPost.com, London’s DailyMail.co.uk and numerous local NBC affiliated television stations in the U.S.

“This was my first experience with my work going viral and it’s been quite a ride,” Ledford said. “Within minutes of Weather.com posting the story to their Facebook page, I started getting phone calls and e-mails from people wanting to use the images. Most I had to turn down because The Weather Channel and its parent company NBC Universal had bought exclusive rights to the images.” So far Ledford has sent out Digital Millennium Copyright Act “take-down” notices to the administrators of 19 web sites that have used the copyrighted material without his permission.

The sun was setting at the end of a long day of making portraits of storm victims for The Weather Channel when Ledford saw Byler Dann salvaging what he could from the rubble of his house. “Sundown was approaching and I’d been working since before dawn,” Ledford said. “I had a few minutes of light left so I went to the highest hill in the neighborhood. That happened to be the spot where Jon’s home had stood, and I asked him if I could make his photograph.” 

Moments after Ledford made Byler Dann’s portrait, friends who were helping sift through the rubble of the home heard a faint bark. It was Maggie, Byler Dann’s 11-year-old Sheltie, who had been buried under a slab of concrete nearly 30 hours. “At first no one was sure they’d heard what they thought they’d heard. But once they heard her bark again, I knew something either extremely remarkable or extremely tragic was about to unfold in front of me. Either way, I knew it would be an opportunity for great pictures.”

What Ledford ended up with was the only photos or video of a rescue of any sort from the tornadoes that swept through central Illinois on Sunday, November 17, 2013.

"Regardless of the medium, this story works because it makes you feel something,” said Neil Katz, The Weather Channel’s Editor-in-Chief and Vice-President for Digital Content. “A man's heart is broken and then brought back to life by finding his best buddy alive."

"We're really proud to be able to bring those kind of moments to our audience, and to have it go viral on RedditFacebook, HuffPost, Gawker and Time was a real honor."

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