By Margaret Brinson
In the eight months since the world first turned its attention to the devastated, other-worldly rubble that was once the capital and surrounding cities of Haiti, headlines have increasingly begun to fade.
Until, that is, reporter Mac McClelland and her uninhibited Twitter account caused a commotion amongst the journalistic community.
One of the millions of people circulating through the tent cities and wreckage of the nation, McClelland is on-duty, reporting for “Mother Jones” magazine. One of her story-telling tactics: Live reporting in under 140 characters from her Twitter account.
The first time I read McClelland’s work was after hearing of the controversy it created. Her colorful yet cut-throat tweets are thought-provoking and convey a sense of urgency as they unfold in real-time amidst real-life horror stories. Some say McClelland took it too far, though, when she wrote Sept. 17 of a grotesque scene she witnessed in the aftermath of a rape, calling the victim by name.
McClelland said the camps are host to a “rape epidemic,” which is in keeping with the physical and sexual assault often associated with densely populated, desperate and insecure areas.
Curious, I visited the site. Her miniature stories were high on the drama — she knows how to evoke an emotional response. Once I had finished, I sat stunned on my sofa. The tweets began by telling of the trauma the victim experienced, then go on to describe unsanitary conditions at the doctor’s office and unjust treatment the patient received from the medic, who reportedly blamed the woman for what five armed men did to her.
Retweets called her gritty details and lack of self-censorship into question. Naming a rape victim is hardly commonplace.
Though they may not agree with McClelland’s colorful language or the ethical issues called into question when naming a victim of trauma, some journalists are taking an opposite position to the critics and embrace social media and online reporting. Dr. Kathie Chute, assistant professor of journalism, teaches a class partially dedicated to the learning of online reporting.
“I don’t consider social media a threat,” Chute said. “Our world is changing. We have many more choices when covering a story. We have resources no one ever dreamed we’d have.”
Chute has students post journalistic blogs and produce media for Web projects to prepare them for the new world of online and social media reporting.
“Journalism as a field is embracing social media because it does provide a means to send information really quickly. Some media companies are providing iPhones instead of video cameras for their reporters so they have fast access. Sometimes the best way to contact a source is through Facebook or some other social media,” Chute said.
Until this style is more widely accepted, though, reporters like McClelland will inevitably face some criticism. McClelland responded to her accusers, claiming the woman had given permission to use her name, a TV station had already broadcast her story and all the locals knew of it.
“I do not presume to question a woman’s right to tell her own story, nor to tell her she is not sophisticated enough to provide that consent,” she tweeted the next day. “I of course have deep concerns for trauma survivors’ needs — as well as about the unconscionable sin of continuing to ignore this epidemic.”
Some stories are too important to ignore. Protecting the well being of many far outweighs protecting the eyes and ears of those who want to ignore the horrors existing outside their door. A journalist’s job is to tell the truth, not to sweep it under the rug.
Some controversial stories may be called sensational. This woman’s story is not. If the world turned its attention, and utmost disgust, to the ill-treatment of the vulnerable in relief camps, perhaps it would end.