New media, same problem

January 25, 2013



News Editor


Last August, a 16-year-old girl was raped in Steubenville, Ohio, by two Steubenville High School football players after a night of partying.


The night of her rape, other teenagers who witnessed her rape took video footage and Instagramed pictures of her being held by her ankles and wrists while she was unconscious.


Nearly five months later, the entire world does not just know her story, but they have witnessed it in real time after the video and photos were leaked and went viral in early January.


Both football players were charged with rape and are now awaiting trial.


We think we know how the story will end: They will get convicted, locked up and the girl can start the healing process and move on—but that might not be so.


While there are incriminating tweets, Facebook posts, photos and videos floating around in cyberspace, these boys might get off the hook because the international hype the case has stirred could lead to an unfair trial.


Local officials have told many publications like Huffington Post and the New York Times that the amount of attention the case has gained through the circulation of the videos and photos on the Internet has led to a “trial by the media” that could interfere with the investigation process by intimidating potential witnesses, keeping them from coming forward.


On top of interfering with the trial process, the defense attorneys argue that their clients could be judged based on rumors and half-truths circulating through the social media, not on the evidence presented in court.


Alas, social media has extended its tentacles to yet another area of society: the justice system.


For the sake of fair trials, this undoubtedly poses a problem. As the defense argues, it could keep new witnesses from stepping forward and it can definitely affect the opinions of potential jurors; but what makes social media different from the media of the past?


Hasn’t the media always been a problem? I don’t see a difference, but the interference is still a dangerous problem.


However, if it were not for social media, the young girl’s case would have never come to light—the case stayed relatively quiet until the videos and photos were leaked by Anonymous activists, a group of hackers that opposes Internet censorship.


It would not be surprising if a small town like Steubenville—where the population is approximately 19,000—did not want to deal with trying a case like this, especially if it involves teenagers who play for the high school football team that is the town’s pride and joy; which is probably why the investigation and trial process had not begun to pick up momentum until just recently when the town came under fire by the media.


In this way, social media could probably do more good than most are willing to admit.


Whether rumors or facts circulate online, the pressure put on officials to provide answers would keep them from losing momentum on investigations.


The only harm I see social media causing affects fair trials, but even then, I cannot help but come back to the conclusion that mainstream media always had the same influence on trials in the past as many are claiming social media has now.


The influence of media is nothing new, and while it should be monitored and limited as much as possible, it is inevitable.


If a case is going to receive national attention, there is no way to avoid outside influence on a trial.


The nosey, badgering nature of the media has not changed, and a new tool changes nothing.


Rebecca Alvarez is a junior journalism major from El Paso, Texas, who serves as a news editor for The Tech Talk. Email comments to rha014@latech.edu.


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