Today, journalists have the world at their fingertips. All they need to do is open an internet browser to gain access to more than enough information to produce stories for the rest of their careers. While some stories still require getting out and doing some good old-fashioned reporting, many others take shape electronically.
One of the rockiest of these new electronic landscapes is social media. The more popular social media becomes, the more fake accounts, scammers, and phishing schemes appear online that threaten to undermine a journalist’s credibility.
If journalists use the Internet wisely in the news-gathering process, they can create a piece that reflects not just one or two people’s opinion on an issue, but a global community’s perspective. However, if they use it carelessly, journalists can quickly disseminate false information and sink their careers, often in 140 characters or less.
Journalists have long reached out into their communities for story ideas and the facts and opinions that ultimately fill out the piece, but social media marks tricky territory. However, some stories can only be told through the eyes of the audience, and Al Jazeera America appears to be chasing one down. Instead of simply providing multimedia to its audience, Al Jazeera America is now using it to fuel its story on campus sexual assault, a move that, while dangerous, could potentially produce an exceptionally revealing and insightful piece.
Throughout this semester, I’ve analyzed Al Jazeera America’s multimedia end products, but until now I’ve neglected to critique its use of multimedia as a source. Colleges are facing sexual assault-induced headaches right now, as many victims begin to speak out and share stories of the ineffective resources for victims of sexual assault offered at their universities.
Please note, I don’t mean to generalize – I understand that not all universities fit this description – but for the ones that do, exposé stories play an important role in fulfilling one of journalists’ most essential responsibilities: covering both sides of a story. Most campuses have extensive PR departments that can defend the schools’ reputations in response to accusations regarding improper handling of sexual assault cases. On the other hand, while, in the past, victims often had no outlet to widely disseminate their version of the event, the Internet now provides them with an unparalleled opportunity to insert their stories into the public domain.
As part of its coverage on sex crimes on college campuses, Al Jazeera America is now asking victims to come forward with their stories, either by posting on social media with the hashtag #TrackingAssault or by submitting an online form located on its website. The pitfalls of this approach are obvious – it remains extremely difficult to unveil who really lies behind the veil of an online profile, and publishing false accounts – especially accusatory ones – of how colleges handled instances of sexual assault can put Al Jazeera America into some extremely hot water if the inaccuracy is revealed. However, because of the prevalent “rape culture” in the United States, which a heavy presence of victim blaming, this may be Al Jazeera America’s only way to produce a story that takes into account all sides of this extremely heated issue.
This being my second-to-last NewsTrack post, I wanted to focus my attention on an emerging trend in multimedia – namely, the use of social media as a reporting tool. Though it lacks in its social media postings, perhaps Al Jazeera can still get something out of social media. I’m glad to see that they’re jumping on the social media reporting bandwagon – I’m not sure a news organization would ultimately survive if it didn’t, given the pervasiveness of social media in most Americans’ lives – but it’s crucial that they remember to respect the power of social media to build – and to destroy – a story.
For now, I’ll just have to wait and see which other news organizations take that plunge as well. Here’s to the future of journalism, to which I hope the ideals of fairness and accuracy will survive.