Seattle University's student newspaper since 1933

The Spectator

Seattle University's student newspaper since 1933

The Spectator

Seattle University's student newspaper since 1933

The Spectator

New Media Changes Coverage of Crime

    It was once the responsibility of trench-coat clad reporters, hunkered down in newsrooms until the wee hours of the morning, cigarette smoke circling to the clack of typewriters and the ring of telephones with the latest news tip, to uncover and report on clandestine crimes, aided only by informants and a reporter’s notebook.

    Or, at least that’s how film noir tells it.
    Whatever the circumstances of the earliest reporters writing about societal wrongdoings, the world of crime reporting today, like almost every other aspect of the media, looks vastly different from these humble beginnings.

    Thanks to social media, the power to report no longer belongs to the privileged few who have direct links to or information about crime cases. The world of new media has created an appetite for fast and furious news delivery, which is often more valued than accurate, less-detailed accounts of events. New forms of news delivery have also created a new type of player in the distribution of news and how crime is reported: third party observers, with the power to change how events are covered.

    “One of the big breakthroughs in new media is the access to a wide variety of sources, as well as a destabilization of the gatekeeper,” said assistant professor of communication Chris Paul. “Now it’s much easier to read things from other sources.”

    As Paul describes it, while consumers were once dependent on the voice of one local paper, with the rise of independent sources of information and the ease of internet access, there are now a litany of different voices consumers can draw on for information.

    With this rise of a new voice in an already cacophonous and crowded field of information today, new questions are being raised about its role, especially in light of violence seen in the United States and abroad.

    A recent case has blurred the lines of media reporting and brought questions to the role that media has when it comes to violent acts. In Steubenville, Ohio in August 2012, a 16-year-old girl was allegedly raped and taken to different parties when unresponsive and too drunk to give consent.

    The situation presents two sides of the new role social media play not only in the way crime is investigated, but how it is reported. Much of what is known about the night of the alleged rape has been pieced together from Twitter updates, Instagram photos and other photos and videos recorded of the alleged victim and the accused, two 16-year-old star football players. But the case only began to receive national attention after Alexandria Goddard, a crime blogger in Steubenville, publicized the videos, photos and other media uploaded online after the night of the alleged rape.

    The New York Times ran a story describing the background of the story on Dec. 16, offering an in depth look at the events surrounding the case and drawing national attention to the story.

    As described by the Times, “The situation in Steubenville has another layer to it that separates it from many others: It is a sexual assault accusation in the age of social media, when teenagers are capturing much of their lives on their camera phones—even repugnant, possibly criminal behavior, as they did in Steubenville in August—and then posting it on the Web, like a graphic, public diary.”

    Because the victim waited days to come forward with her story, there was little to no physical evidence, with the victim relying on evidence including photos, Youtube videos and Twitter updates to better understand and piece together a night she couldn’t remember.

    When Goddard began posting about the crime on her blog, accusing the town’s football crazed culture for favoring the players, others began commenting and adding their voices to the growing debate over what happened that August night, dividing the town.

    In late December, the hacker group Anonymous, through a small splinter group known as Knight Sec, “took up the cause of giving a voice to the victim of this horrible crime, and began unraveling this conspiracy of silence designed to protect a group of high school football players who had become well known to their fellow students as “The Rape Crew,” according to their “Local Leaks” website designed to collect and disseminate information about the case.

    The mere presence of the Anonymous group, as well as rumors that CNN will also begin an investigation in the small Ohio town, has turned the case from one championed by a local blogger to one that has captured the attention of the nation.
    In an age where anyone can broadcast any thought, whim or desire for the entire world to hear, and when more evidence from and about that night is still emerging, the controversy surrounding the role of the media and new media may be obscuring a more central question, one that William McCafferty, the Steubenville police chief, perhaps summed up best in his interview with the Times.

    “The thing I found most disturbing about this is that there were other people around when this was going on. Nobody had the morals to say, ‘Hey, stop it, that isn’t right.’”

    While the death of a 23-year-old woman in India happened thousands of miles away from Steubenville, Ohio, eerie trends emerge when examining the two cases. With five men facing charges of murder, rape and kidnapping after allegedly assaulting the woman on a New Delhi bus, worldwide media has seized on the case, citing figures and statistics about rape culture in India fitting with the overall narrative of a culture that has allowed this to happen, with CNN reporting the “number of reported rapes—in a country where a cultural stigma keeps many victims from reporting the crime—has increased drastically, from 2,487 in 1971 to 24,206 in 2011, according to official figures. New Delhi alone had 572 rapes reported in 2011 and more than 600 in 2012.”

    In both cases the media have been quick to blame overall cultural norms as explanation for violence, in the case of New Delhi, India’s patriarchal, male-dominated culture has been in many cases the first to receive blame for why such an event was allowed to take place, with Steubenville’s football-worshipping fan base described in depth by the Times.

    However, as noted in a piece by CNBC, “The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimate that one in five American women will be raped in her lifetime, and the U.S. Department of Justice reports more than 300,000 American women are raped each year. In 2011, India, a country whose population is four times greater than the United States, had 12 times fewer reported rapes,” and that, “The Federal Bureau of Investigation crime data reveals only 24 percent of reported rapes result in an arrest in the United States, a rate far below that of other violent crimes such as murder (79 percent) and aggravated assault (51 percent).”

    The author of the piece, Poulami Roychowdhury, states that, “This astonishing reduction of India’s issues with gender-based violence to a vast and unchanging patriarchal culture also obfuscates significant differences within India regarding violence against women.”

    In the case of Steubenville, many in the media have been quick to blame the culture of the small, football-obsessed town in Ohio as a cause and explanation of the events of that August night. While half a world away from each other, the media have in both cases looked to larger answers for questions with a litany of causes and reasons. The American media has in many ways been quick to blame the “culture” in India as explanation for brutality, opening up an entirely different set of problematic questions, they need look no further than Steubenville to see a culture with
    similar overtones.

    “While there are larger social forces at play, today’s media doesn’t encourage us to look into or at ourselves,” Paul said. “It’s harder in Steubenville because it’s closer to us, which is why there’s so much emotion behind it, and easy to empathize with.”

    While the role of the media in today’s crime world is ever-changing and unclear, it may be media of all types, from the highest paid news anchors, to anyone with access to Twitter, that is increasingly becoming, rather than reporting on the stories that shape the world.

    “Media has always been part of the story,” Paul said. “Decisions about what to cover have constantly been made, and every decision affects what makes meaning and what you see. Now that there are more people in the media, we’re seeing more divisive media with a stance.”

    With the increasing focus in the media on itself, in these cases and others, it might be that the proliferation of new journalists is missing the larger message.

    One of the issues highlighted by the Sandy Hook Elementary school shooting on Dec. 14 reopens the debate over media’s responsibility to accuracy in the age of Twitter. While initial reports in many instances passed off false information as accurate (Ryan Lanza, the brother of the shooter Adam Lanza, was wrongfully identified as the shooter in early reports), only to be recanted later. Debates have ignited over whether or not this is simply the direction the media is headed to compete with unofficial sources of information available to consumers. Do journalists still have an ethical responsibility to wait for the most accurate information? Or must they report whatever information is readily available? To what degree is misinformation simply a part of muddled initial reports of
    such tragedies?

    “Breaking news culture is dangerous,” Paul said. “We must learn how to think about media, and CNN as a business or a news agency.”

    He believes that as the fight to get out the latest information no matter the cost escalates, consumers will know to differentiate between the organizations with a commitment to accuracy rather than a commitment to profit.

    The day of the attack, many news agencies changed programming or preempted content to go live to Newtown, Conn., while reporting very little new information. Many outlets received backlash for interviewing eyewitnesses, in this case children at the school. With the huge influx of media in the town after the shooting, questions have also been raised about how to cover funerals and remembrances for the victims, after the attention given to the shooter.

    According to the Associated Press, “Tensions in the shattered community ran high as the grief of parents and townspeople collided with the crush of media reporting on the shootings and the funerals. Police walked children to parents waiting in cars to protect them from the cameras. Many parents yelled at reporters to leave their children and the town alone.”

    Though in many circumstances, the natural confusion of breaking news situations creates misinformation, Paul believes consumers will be able to define for themselves what content producers to trust.
    “If we believe in market theories, the good producers will be rewarded, and the bad producers will be punished,” Paul said. “We are already beginning to see those changes for better or for worse.”

    Olivia may be reached at [email protected]

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