Media and Trials: A BIG Problem
The “Media Trial” Problem: Limiting Justice
“The people of the State of Florida find the defendant...” My face is glued to the television as I await the verdict that I had so anxiously wanted to hear for years. To no surprise, it was not a verdict we had all hoped for, partially due to the media. The Casey Anthony trial, is just one of the many that have fallen into the classification of a “media trial,” a loose term that describes the profound impact media coverage has on a person’s reputation by creating a pre-assumed perception of guilt or innocence, before, or after a case goes to court. This pre-assumed perception gives the general public, potential jury members, an impartial view on a court case, overall, influencing the system of American justice. This injustice, especially in high profile cases, happens when jury members, sometimes court officials, simply want to gain their “five seconds of fame.” Now an additional problem lies within the simple, yet complex, fight between the right of free press and the right to an impartial jury. Let’s face it, there is no such concept as an impartial jury, simply due to the media attention that trials receive these days. Within this main problem, lies many problems that interfere with the American idea of justice. Are we craving, and striving to find entertainment, or justice?
“It isn’t all Law & Order.”
One problem that stems from media that could possibly add to jury bias and court outcomes, it is what lawyers refer to as the “CSI Effect.” Named after the hit television show, this phenomenon describes the distorted view crime investigation shows cast upon forensics and criminal evidence. If a juror is an avid fan of CSI, then the case they are apart of, better be as “realistic” as CSI. This distorted view influences the outcome of a court case, simply because these television shows are giving us an unrealistic view of the court process and the American justice system. The general public needs to face it, the real courtroom is the farthest you can get from CSI. General courtroom evidence takes months to collect, gather, and study; CSI, on the other hand, takes an hour to do it all. Due to the popularity of these shows, there are jury members that bring in their preconceived ideas of what the law should look like due to the media surrounding them.
OK, so CSI is a hit television series, and millions watch it on a weekly basis, so, how do we stop its effect? The entertainment industry needs to require these shows to be more realistic. By doing this, the general public will be much more educated in the ways of the justice system. I am not saying take out all the drama, just refine the drama to fit the reality of the courtroom. It would be much more beneficial to the general public, and the defendant, if these shows gave them a bare look into how legal cases and trials actually unfold. Who knows, maybe by doing this we could see a drop in shocking verdicts?
“According to Nancy Grace...”
Being a lover of the law, I flock to watching former prosecutors like Nancy Grace and Jane Velez-Mitchell, as they give their take on certain high-profile trials; however, the second problem of media influence lies within these two women. Through their interviews with people involved in cases, they almost can give the general public a preconceived notion in regards to a trial and its defendant, violating the right to an impartial jury. Another action they are both famous for, like in the Michael Jackson trial for instance, is interviewing people who could have been potential witnesses in a trial. From these interviews, the general public, 99.9% of the time, can learn a startling fact that can throw the whole case for a loop. All the general public needs is a shocking story to render an even more shocking verdict, Nancy and Jane contribute to this problem. Even though both are two intelligent women and the information they provide helps keep the general public informed, at the same time, it provides even more of a platform for injustice in the courtroom.
How do we stop Nancy? Honestly there is no stopping Nancy Grace, we would be violating free press, but I do believe there is a way to present news in a fair and honest way. By making these court reporters have more scripted shows, we can see that they present the facts, first and foremost, now opinion is always present, but I believe this could aid the problem. Also, I do believe there are other gateways to providing the public with information on high-profile cases. When the Scottsboro Boys were being tried in 1931, they did not have the media influences we have today, but they were still well informed. Back then, newspapers were a gateway for information, and sometimes could plainly present facts. We see that the American justice system has stood strong for all these years, why let it become easily fluctuated by television reporters.
“The media has rendered a verdict?” However the most serious problem of how media effects real justice lies within this idea of media verdicts. We see the talk show hosts, time and time again, issuing their verdict on a case. As people, we tend to listen to one another, and in situations in which we are unsure, we follow. By following these hosts, many are presented with their idea of the verdict, and many follow along. Most of the time, this is the case. Therefore, if they are randomly picked to serve on the jury, they cannot focus their attention on the trial, due to the constant comparisons they make to see if it “matches up” with what the media told them. In most cases, this turns out bad. During the Conrad Murray trial of 2011, we saw this happen. The media had this conceived verdict of “guilty,” and it was hard for anyone to consider that Michael Jackson could have done it to himself. Another problem that arises is that if one juror loses trust in a reporter due to the actual trial not following what they heard on television. It takes only one, to influence another, and so forth, to render a verdict that could shock the nation.
Now, how do we put and end to media verdicts? I believe there is a right to free press and everyone should be entitled to their opinions, but in cases where it could infringe upon the justice system it needs to be limited. Reporters should only make statements about the general case. They can keep expressing their opinion, but they need to keep their “verdicts” to themselves. It would solve the frustration reporters experience when a case doesn’t go their way. Obviously, we cannot restrict free press, and that isn’t what I am suggesting. What I am suggesting is simply providing some limitations on court room cases covered by the media.
“Poor, poor, defense...”
Another problem is that with these sources of media, we see an almost built up hatred towards the defendant of a trial. The jury, if they follow along can have this same mindset. Media, in this case, inhibits the case of the defense. It simply creates a trial that doesn’t follow the American idea of “the right to a fair trial.” Prosecutors, on the other hand, have the upper end of the stick. With most of the media exploiting the defendant, the Prosecution’s job to “prove beyond a reasonable doubt,” is much more feasible than the Defense, who has to prove “beyond a media’s doubt.”
As I have addressed a couple of the issues surrounding media trials, I now want to hark on some general solutions that could be easily implemented.
Voire doire, a fancy word for jury selection, must be monitored better. From my work experience in the courtroom, I was able to see that, with more people helping select the jury panel, the less biased it was. Many lawyers can simply rephrase questions used during their selection to bring out the bias in people. Asking questions involving the media and television, can give a lawyer much insight into how a juror would decide the outcome in a case.
When involved in a high-profile case, it is a smart idea to issue a venue change to confuse all media coverage. For example, the Conrad Murray trial in 2011 was held in Los Angeles, California. It was covered by the media for over twenty days. Had the case been brought to, let’s say, Oklahoma, the less media coverage it would have received. However, there are ways in which a venue can get leaked, which questions lawyers’ credibilities, along with other court officials. Venue changes could provide a better outcome for some defendants, and reduce the crave for fame.
Many cases issue a continuance, this is common, especially in some high-profile cases. This is when the lawyers agree upon delaying a trial long enough for the media hype to die down. By allowing the media to die down, we are letting bias die down as well. This has very little effect when it comes to emotional bias in juries, but at least it limits factually based bias and possible injustice.
Restricting cameras in courtrooms can be another effective way to ensure fairness for the defendant. Without cameras, there isn’t anyone the jury, lawyers, or other court officials have to impress, like the American public. Trials are meant to be calm and rational too, and with cameras, the drama is just increased.
From being in a jury room, this last solution is very vital to implement. In many court cases, we know the jury is instructed before a trial begins, it is the law; however, many courts do not always instruct their juries post-trial. By doing this, the judge and lawyers can be assured that they were aware of all the legal principles that surrounded the trial as a whole. By being reminded post-trial, we could see more sound verdicts.
In order to limit bias, and to render a fair verdict, the justice system must battle with the media world. People can question many occurrences in high profile cases, because sometimes a craving for fame overshadows the crave for justice in this society. With juror impartiality, we set ourselves up for verdicts that, in many cases, do not come out like we wanted them to be. Media attention on cases also tends to shift toward the defendant instead of simply seeking justice for the victim. Very few people that I have met, can discuss the Casey Anthony trial with me in terms of Caylee Anthony, whom the trial was about. We, as the general public, are taking for granted the very effective justice system we have. Instead of using it for the American idea of justice, we are simply turning to it for entertainment. Media’s profound impact on the justice system will only increase, unless something is done about its effects.
More by this Author
The sun gleams through the window, and at approximately 9:00 AM I hear “All rise for the Honorable Judge Chap Cain.” The hardwood floors creak from age, after all I was standing in a courtroom built in the...