Media Influence on Trials

-By Winston Smith

When [it] began, all of the networks were getting these hate-mail letters because people’s soap operas were being interrupted for the Simpson trial. But then what happened was the people who liked soap operas got addicted to the Simpson trial. And they got really upset when the Simpson trial was over, and people would come up to me on the street and say, ‘God, I loved your show.’

— Marcia Clark


The NPR podcast Serial became incredibly popular upon its release on October 3, 2014. In its first season, the show’s host, Sarah Koenig, took listeners through the heartbreaking story of the murder of high school senior Hae Min Lee. However, the main focus became an analysis of Adnan Masud Syed, Lee’s boyfriend, who was convicted of her murder and sentenced to life plus 30 years. The ultimate purpose of this podcast series was to explore the conviction of Syed and if his conviction was correct. Many listeners have wildly different views on the matter, however, what is undeniable is that this public spotlight generated movement on Syed’s behalf.

On March 29, 2018, an appeals panel vacated the conviction of Syed and ruled that he be granted a new trial on all charges. Clearly, this is a victory for Syed, one which would most likely never would have occurred if he was not the focus of an incredibly successful podcast series generated by a well-respected media organization. If you believe that Syed is innocent, this is an opportunity for him to exonerate himself and become a free man. If you do not, then you may have hope that the prosecutors do not take this new trial lightly.

However, is this public eye delving into trials a good thing? Is the involvement of media in trials beneficial to our society in assisting in the just conviction or exoneration of individuals?

While Syed’s story is a story of success and may become a story of a man who is able to be freed from unjust punishment, we have seen times where media involvement has had quite a negative effect on court proceedings.

The most infamous example of media coverage in trials was People of the State of California v. Orenthal James Simpson. In this writer’s opinion, media coverage of this trial was an unmitigated disaster in the ability for the court and the prosecution to handle this case. Marcia Clark, lead prosecutor for the State of California, was under constant scrutiny over her appearance. In a 2016 interview Ms. Clark recounted “Because we were televised, there was a lot of criticism of me physically: what I wore, the makeup, my hair.” In addition to these frankly sexist and ridiculous comments that Ms. Clark received during her work as an attorney, the media coverage also deeply polarized the nation and lead to additional issues. In their article Media coverage and public opinion of the O. J. Simpson trial: Implications for the criminal justice system found that:

Analysis indicates those who exhibited a stronger psychological involvement with Simpson developed through repeated media exposure were more likely to believe his innocence. African American respondents also were more likely to believe in Simpson’s innocence than were others. Gender had no effect on beliefs of Simpson’s guilt or innocence. Those with a strong belief in the fairness of the United States justice system more strongly supported unrestricted media coverage of the trial. Anglo Americans more than African Americans believed Simpson’s lawyers used the media effectively for their advantage. Learning about the justice system by following the case resulted in increased interpersonal discussions about the legal system.

While I am happy that the public at large was able to learn about the criminal justice system through their exposure to this trial, this was not the only way, and was probably not the best way, to learn.

Of course, this was the “Trial of the Century” and is not the norm. What do we really know about media coverage of trials? Valeria Hans and Juliet Dee’s article Media Coverage of Law provide us with some idea of the effect of media on trials. In describing how the media often times misleading on its presentation of crime and justice they detail:

First, the television news coverage tends to be quite brief and disproportionately represents sensational and violent crime (Surette, 1984). Because few TV news stories exceed 2 minutes, the longest “cut” the public sees of a trial is likely to be less than 2 minutes. Coverage often includes prosecutors and defense attorneys making self-serving statements to the media on the courthouse steps or artist’s renderings or short clips of action inside the courtroom. Thus television viewers’ images of the legal system are largely derived from brief and not very detailed news stories covering extraordinary trials.

In addition to its inability to effectively convey the issues at hand in a trial, media also creates an issue during jury selection. Potential jurors on a case are supposed to have no preconceived notions or prejudices regarding the case at hand. Media coverage of trials makes this more difficult as many will have heard about the case and begun to form their own convictions about the outcome. This can be remarkably difficult for defendants as Hans and Dee report:

In the United States, the political and legal choices to permit a free press can produce significant problems for defendants whose cases have been covered in the media. Indeed, media stories that contain information about a defendant’s criminal record, incriminating statements, or a confession are particularly biasing (Carroll et al., 1986).

In contrast, there are benefits to media coverage of court cases. In her article Media Influence on Courts: Evidence from Civil Case Adjudication, Claire Lim has found that the presence of active media coverage may enhance consistency in the civil justice system in terms of the amount of damages awarded. In addition, media attention can be a useful tool in uncovering abuses of the legal system and kickstart their rectification. Increased transparency, in nearly all circumstances, is inherently a beneficial thing for a court system in a democracy as it allows for more consistency and prevents abuses of power. 

It appears that the involvement of the media is a mixed bag. On one hand, the media tends to underreport the issues at hand while fanning the flames of sensationalism. On the other, the media can be a useful tool in the way in which to help identify, detail, and rectify issues. As in many areas, this comes down to responsible and irresponsible coverage of events and their presentation to the public. While sensationalizing the details of a murder may be able to bring in viewers and readers this comes at the cost of providing the actual details in regards to innocence or guilt. 

Responsible media coverage is beneficial for our trials, but that sort of thing is rare and typically niche. Therefore, media reporting at large is not helpful and sometimes detrimental in assisting in the just conviction or exoneration of individuals. We need responsible coverage of trials as it appears that this coverage will only continue to proliferate. We need less sensationalism and more facts-based reporting and detailing of the true nature of the case at hand. Otherwise, we will never know what the hell is actually going on and may be lead astray.

Photo Credit: Damon Tucker

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