By Katelin Davis
The University of Mississippi
The murder of Panola County resident Jessica Chambers sparked national attention. The coverage of Chambers’ case varied from articles in renowned newspapers like The New York Times to individual Twitter and Facebook accounts.
Obtaining news through social media has increased in recent years. News distribution through social media has affected traditional news sources, criminal procedure and citizens’ viewpoints on high-profile criminal cases like the Chambers’ case.
According to a Pew Internet Research Project in 2014, 74 percent of online adults use social media. The following graph from Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism shows the percentage of people who get news from social media sites.
With Chambers’ case currently reaching over 16.2 million hits on Google, local newspapers have learned to use social media to their advantage.
John Howell Sr. grew up in Panola County. His father co-owned the local newspaper named The Panolian, and Howell worked on the newspaper during high school in the 1960s. Howell is now co-owner of The Panolian and has watched the newspaper evolve to fit the technological age.
“The newspaper’s role has rapidly changed,” Howell said. “Where once we might have been the primary disseminator of news in the community, we are now one of many sources. To counter that, we strive to be the most accurate source, offering more depth than what people can learn from social media sources.”
While The Panolian strives to give its community members accurate news, individual social media accounts have also taken advantage of the popularity of social media to distribute their ideas about Chambers’ case.
One Twitter account, known as Anonymous, blamed potential gang activity for Chambers’ murder. While the Panola County Police Department did not confirm gang activity in the murder, Anonymous linked Chambers’ ex-boyfriend, Bryan Rudd, to the crime.
Charles Mitchell, the assistant dean of journalism at the University of Mississippi, shared his concern about the use of social media by unaccredited sources to report on high-profile cases.
“People have always speculated about significant events,” Mitchell said. “The difference is that social media facilitates instant public speculation on a global basis. A T weet from Courtland can immediately be seen in France. ReTweeting can be exponential. Social media doesn’t differentiate between fact and fiction, so both can spread with equal speed.”
Darby Hennessey, 19, is originally from Portland, Oregon. She is a sophomore at the University of Mississippi majoring in journalism. Hennessey acknowledges social media’s role in criminal cases. To her, social media influences how news consumers view potential suspects, especially in racially motivated accusations.
“Chambers’ ex-boyfriend was portrayed in a very negative manner online, which is pretty typical of media and society in general nowadays,” Hennessey said. “Just look at Ferguson and other recent racially-charged cases lately. The media displays the less appealing and trustworthy photos in hopes of diminishing their credibility… The media and society are not easily convinced of the ‘innocent until proven guilty’ standard.”
Mitchell also compared the outpouring of social media interest in the Chambers’ case with other high-profile cases. Mitchell believes social media can be an asset to the police during criminal investigations.
“The most prominent example is the tracking of the suspects in the Boston Marathon bombing,” Mitchell said. “Boston police used traditional and social media proactively and reactively in finding the brothers believed to be responsible. Social media today is the ‘wanted poster’ of the Old West, but on major steroids.”
University of Mississippi School of Law Dean Richard Gershon also believes social media can be used positively in high-profile cases. According to Gershon, social media gives people an outlet to offer information about a case.
“I don’t think people really understand how powerful social media is,” Gershon said. “Everybody has access to social media … Things that used to happen in a small town in an isolated way where no one knew about an injustice get out there pretty quickly. Social media can give us insight to those who have committed a crime.”
While police departments can use social media positively, social media coverage also presents problems according to Mitchell and Gershon. Both concluded that social media makes it harder to find an impartial juror for a high-profile case like Chambers’.
“The Sixth Amendment requires an impartial jury,” Mitchell said. “For many decades, the definition has been a person who does not prejudge and is able to reach a verdict based only on the evidence at trial.
“It would seem to make it more challenging when you Google ‘Jessica Chambers’ and get 15.7 million hits, but there have already been high-profile cases in the social media era where jurors have returned verdicts that were not in line with prevailing opinion.”
According to Gershon, the University of Mississippi Law School has started to cover the importance of social media for lawyers in their courses. Jess Waltman, a University of Mississippi Law School student originally from Quitman, Mississippi, shared his experience with social media instruction in his courses.
“Two of my professors have specifically covered social media in class, but I think it should be a fairly common thing to cover, given how pervasive social media is,” Waltman said. “In my municipal law practice class, Professor Ben Griffith taught us how attorneys should be trained in social media so they can effectively advise their clients about how to use social media properly.”
While newspapers and law classes have adapted to fit the increasing coverage of crime cases through social media, Gershon believes some aspects of social media reach farther than the business world.
“I hope people don’t lose sight of the tragedy,” Gershon said. “The use of social media makes us distant.”
Beri Glover, 19, is a sophomore communication sciences and disorders major at the University of Mississippi. She is originally from Panola County and graduated with Chambers. Glover also believes accusations on social media can alienate the reader from the victim in a criminal case.
“The theorist groups’ reports and the false accusations on social media are harmful to not only those that are being attacked, but also to the people who are reading lie after lie,” Glover said. “In this day and age, people just want to read on the topic as long as it is interesting. The truth is not as important.”
Hear more of the interview with Dean Richard Gershon here.