Jackalyn Kovac, a producer at WTOV9 in Steubenville, recently spoke to journalism students at Waynesburg University at an event hosted by the campus SPJ chapter. Kovac and her coworkers at the WTOV9 newsroom have been trying to navigate the ongoing Steubenville rape ease imbroglio, which, from my perspective, serves as a near-perfect case study for the challenges that today’s social media world presents to journalists trying to do their job the right way.
The Steubenville story — if you’re not familiar, here’s a primer — has led to accusations that the town (or the sheriff or the football coach or the county) is covering up for the accused boys. And in a case as emotionally loaded as this one, the battle lines have been drawn among the community and WTOV9 has been left in the crossfire.
What makes this case notable from a journalistic perspective is that because WTOV is keeping with its internal policy to not name minors until they’ve been found guilty, the station (and its staff) have been accused of aiding in the “coverup” and refusing to report the “truth.”
Kovac alluded to this problem when she discussed with students how misinformation had spread online and made their jobs more difficult:
“We had a lot of issues with how viewers perceived what was going on and it caused a lot of work to try and debunk those misconceptions,” she said. “It’s something we can’t ignore.”
Now, any journalist (or any j-student who’s had an intro class) knows that it’s not up to the media to determine guilt — that’s why the judicial system exists. And we know that we treat suspects as innocent until proven guilty (unless you’re on cable news, and then you make a career off of deciding for yourself who’s guilty and who’s not). Of course, regular citizens have no such qualms about waiting for pesky things like a jury verdict before determining guilt — and they’ve taken to social media to decry why WTOV has not done the same.
Now, it’s worth noting that I have no idea if the boys are guilty (the trial doesn’t even start until next week), but this story encapsulates the challenge for media organizations in the social media age: namely how they handle a world where every viewer or reader has their own platform to air grievances about real or perceived faults in the coverage — and possibly sway others’ perception of the same.
From my understanding of journalism ethics, WTOV9 is handling the case the right way. But since viewers who have assumed the boys’ guilt have an expectation to see them treated as guilty by the media, will the station’s credibility suffer in the eyes of viewers who think not naming the students is an abdication of responsibility? In the pre-social world, these arm-chair critiques would’ve gone no further than watercoolers or dinner tables, but thanks to participatory media, it’s spreading like wildfire and feeding and growing.
Now that social media has empowered audiences in a way not seen before, this is a situation that more and more newsrooms will be confronted with: an audience reared on Nancy Grace and mobilized by social media who think waiting for facts and not jumping to conclusion is a vice rather than a virtue.