Friday, November 2, 2007

Analysis of the media's influence on the jury

Media has become the center to every aspect of daily life. According to a study conducted by researchers at the Center for Media Design at Ball State University, individuals spend 30 percent of their waking hours using media exclusively and another 39 percent using media while doing another activity. Amongst the media programs that the pubic views, approximately two-thirds of all prime-time television programs reference some sort of violence. The media’s portrayal of such issues has a great influence on how the public views society. According to professors across the country, the increase in support for the death penalty between 1979 and the early 1990’s can also be attributed to increased media involvement in such cases. The media has affected the criminal justice system in two respects: It has bolstered support for the death penalty by developing a fear of crime within the public and also influenced jurors’ verdict on cases by creating false perceptions about individuals involved with the case either through pre-trial media or previous media narrative.

Across the United States, crime rates have continuously been reported to decline. However, media sensationalism and exposure to crime creates the illusion that crime rates have increased. Such sensationalism has contributed to the Law and Order Syndrome. The Law and Order Syndrome states that “increasingly favorable support toward capital punishment is associated with rapidly increasing crime rates.” The syndrome also hypothesizes that there is a direct causal relationship between increased crime rates and fear of crime, capital punishment, gun ownership, and change in court system. This relationship is also supported by the Instrumental Response Hypothesis which states that “support for the death penalty comes from a desire to lower crime rates.”

Though the jury is not allowed access to media reports during the court proceedings, previous media narrative seems to influence their verdict in court cases. Instrumental Response Hypothesis and the Law and Order Syndrome show how jurors’ overall opinions of administering the death penalty are formed. Meanwhile, media’s influence on jurors’ thoughts does not have to come solely from news reports. A myriad of other sources such as television programs, radio shows, songs, video games, and newspaper articles also contribute to how the verdict is determined. For example, if a juror had previously viewed a similar case on television or knew how the verdict was determined, it may also influence the verdict on the current case. Judge Richard Baner’s order for scheduling rare late-night trial sessions in David Hendrick’s court case illustrates such an influence. Judge Baner chose to schedule the trial for this timing because he felt that the television show “fatal vision”, which depicted a similar story as the case would influence the verdict of the trial. Thus, in order to prevent the jurors from viewing the show, Judge Baner scheduled the trial for the same time as the program.

The way that the media presents information about a criminal case also seems to create support for capital punishment. The media is a market driven institution that constantly produces stories for public enjoyment. Unfortunately, court cases have also been included as a form of entertainment. It is astonishing to view the way in which the media can manipulate a serious issue such as a murder and make it into a story that the general public loves. For example, Paradise Lost: The Child Murders at Robin Hood Hills is a spectacular film that shows the extent to which the media will fall to present an engaging court case to the public. One scene of the film, in particular, with a news reporter amazed me. The news reporter was shown practicing her lines over and over again so that her script will interest the viewers. This scene shows how morally wrong it is to create entertainment out of someone’s pain. It disgusts me to know that people have the courage to even publicize such controversial and personal cases without proper credibility. Sadly, many other cases such as these are also present in our society. Sister Helen Prejean shows this in her novel Death of Innocents through the case studies of Dobie Williams and Joseph O’Dell. However, the media in O’Dell’s case is very interesting because despite the amount of attention his case received through the media it was not enough to save his life. Thus often mass media coverage of court cases sometimes it does more harm than help.

Furthermore, pretrial media reports are another huge influence on case verdicts. Media publicity of the case and the defendant dramatizes far beyond what is necessary. Presentation of the case in this manner often causes prejudices and stereotypes to be developed within the juror’s. According to a study conducted by researchers Hedy R. Dexter, Steven D. Penrod, and Amy L. Otto the evidence presented at trial can lessen the prejudice that is developed by pre-trial media but cannot eliminate it completely. Thus, pre-trial publicity has a lasting influence on the juror.

The influence of pre-trial media can easily be seen in the OJ Simpson case. Newspaper articles, magazine covers, and headline news all presented this case with interesting bylines that captured public interest. The media buzz was so influential that it was also a factor that was considered during Voir Dire. In fact, Judge Ito removed four potential jury members just because they watched TV. Even though the individuals claimed that they did not watch any news related to the OJ Simpson case, he knew that it was extremely difficult to avoid hearing about the case if one watched television. The media “poisons” everyone’s thoughts about the issue; preventing citizens from have a fair trial under law. At one point, Judge A. Ito’s disappointment with media coverage even influenced him to attempt to prohibit media access to the trial.

Media role in the OJ Simpson case raises some interesting questions to the public. When is media coverage too much? When should it be limited and when is it useful? These are all questions that can only be solved with a clear set of statures explaining the role of media in law. Clearly, the way that we are dealing with this problem has not been successful. Some have even sued the media for libel, yet the powerhouse is still in action and affecting peoples lives each and everyday. There is no way to escape media’s report on high profile cases. It is constantly being broadcasted to the public wherever they go. For example, the cases of Anna Nicole, OJ Simpson, and Scott Peterson have been continually telecasted for months and sometimes even years. The media exaggerates such cases beyond necessary and barely ever reveal the truth. I feel that the ideal solution to such media reports would be to eliminate pre-trial media completely or solely remove jurors who have prior knowledge of the case through media from court proceedings. Much change needs to be made to find the ideal role of media in the criminal justice system, but with regulations and some limitations it can surely be done.


Akansha said...

I still feel like the media has too-tremendous an impact on the undertaking of our judicial system. Watching "Paradise Lost" made feel even more strongly about this issue. In the film, the media seemed to go too far in its investigations; the privacy of the families were definetly not respected. I feel that media tampering influences the opinion of the public who blindly believe everything on the screen in front of them. I agree with you in that something needs to be done in order to control where the media can go; standards must be set in order to ensure that the news the public gets is not tampered with--that it is, in fact, the truth.

hanghang said...

I think there's a big difference between entertainment and news. I believe there is legitimate media out there trying to inform people of certain cases, but even the news has its constraints and has to pick and choose between what is more important and can't fully inform the public of all the needed information. Then there are entertainment programs out there who worry more about ratings and sensationalizing facts rather than reporting the truth. The problem I have with the media's involvement in the court system is the majority of the time, in my opinion, there is too much distortion of facts from the time the events happen to the time the public receives the information. The other problem I have is with the entertainment sector of the media. I think "news media" has been abandoned by many in favor of sensationalism And a media that is puts ratings ahead of truth cannot be the valuable watchdog that we expect it to be.

katiegane said...

I agree that the media plays too large of a role in influencing the outcome of trials. Sometimes this impact can be beneficial by attracting attention to a case to help one appeal for a more fair trial, but it can also be problematic by having too much of an influence on public opinion. After watching "Paradise Lost," I feel that the media distorted many views on the issue and asserted biased opinions too often. Because the news coverage of the case realized its audience's disapproval of the boys on trial, it continued to alienate the boys for the purpose of attracting viewers. This method is not fair to the accused because it is only going to have a much greater effect on turning the general opinion against the boys. I think that America needs to work on curbing the media's influence on cases so that everyone's rights of privacy will be respected and no biased views will be formed.

Madison said...

I believe that the media plays an inappropriate role in our justice system also. "Paradise Lost" portrayed this issue extremely well, with the reporter practicing her lines, and the parents of the victim's seeming almost to play up to the camera. I think that the media can sway public opinion on cases, and make citizens believe what the media thinks is important. How is this just? The public should be given the facts, and should think for themselves and not be swayed. Also, the pulic should not be personally involved in cases, however, the media is allowing this. There needs to be standards and guidelines for media so that there are only facts and truths set forth for the public to see and hear.

annadele said...

The study that you referred to - does it suggest that historically public support or nonsupport tends to correlate with the media's presentation of it at the time?
If that's what you meant, then the media portraying the bad elements of capital punishment was likely to be the effect of the public's sentiment at the time rather than the cause and vice versa.
I agree that the media can be problematic and unnecessarily aggressive when it comes to covering high profile cases but I don't think that the media really has more of an effect than the insight of a brother or a peer on the case. And news coverage serves to keep court proceedings honest. Who is going to make a bad call in front of millions of viewers?