Does the mainstream press play a role in the results of high-profile crime trials?
In 2011, it seems as though it did.
Courtroom verdicts in at least three major cases in 2011 stunned the mass public. Mainstream coverage of those cases created a public perception, that apparently either helped, or hurt, those on trial.
Casey Anthony, accused of killing her 2-year-old daughter, hiding her body in the trunk of her car, dumping it in the woods, and then partying for 30 days without telling anyone her daughter was missing, was found not guilty by a jury.
An Italian jury overturned a conviction of American college student Amanda Knox, who was accused of taking part in the stabbing death of her friend and roommate during a bizarre sex love triangle.
And most recently, a judge set free the so-called “West Memphis 3,” three men who as teens were convicted of murdering three boys in Memphis, in a crime that shattered the community. After questions about their guild surfaced, the West Memphis 3 were released after spending 17 years in prison. In each case, the mainstream public largely believed that the accused were guilty.
The outcome of these court cases offers journalists, students and the public an opportunity to understand the powerful role of the mainstream media in affecting the outcome a trial. For better, or worse.
A USA Today/Gallup Poll showed that two out of three Americans believed that Anthony was guilty.
Maybe it was because Anthony admitted to making up a fake story about a nanny that never existed took her from the home? Or maybe the public was confused by the photos of Anthony dancing in nightclubs weeks after her daughter went missing — and she still hadn’t reported it.
The mainstream press was shocked at the verdict. But legal experts before the verdict was announced predicted that Anthony would avoid conviction: People Magazine ran a front page photo and headline of “The Casey Anthony Trial,”: Getting Away with Murder?.
In this case, there was a disconnect between what the mainstream press was reported and what the courtroom jurors believed.
Anthony’s defense team also played that up — creating a layer of guilt in the jury that if they convicted Anthony it would be because of the media coverage of the case, not the facts in the courtroom.
Jurors may have also been affected by the television media. A forensic pathologist said this on cable television: “That jury has a very tough decision to make. So they are going to expect the DNA or the bullet or the knife mark. They want to see something that is substantial, because they do look at CSI. They see these things coming about.”
The verdict sparked pandemonium in social media circles, and protests on the streets.
A slightly nuanced but similar outcome resulted for Amanda Knox, dubbed “Foxy Knoxy” in the press. The Italian media became infatuated with Knox’s story: An American college girl caught in a love triangle that results in the brutal death of a British student.
Knox was originally convicted.
In this case, however, the Italian media romanticized the story and painted Knox as “Foxy Knoxy.”
“It’s an example of the way the media are fixated by certain females who are charged with murder. Running in parallel with that is a fascination with youth and beauty,” the London Evening Standard wrote.
In America, the media coverage was different. The mainstream covered Knox as the American girl wronged by the Italian government. She became a figure for the mainstream press to get behind — and root for.
Time Magazine wrote in September: “In the U.S., Knox is the victim of a judicial system gone awry. That is the way her family has portrayed her in countless interviews with American television outlets over the past four years. The courting of the family by American network producers involved generally favorable coverage.”
The court’s reversal of the Knox conviction stunned the public; unlike Anthony, however, Knox had supporters.
In America she was a heroine; overseas, she was a spoiled American psycho. The perceptions developed largely because of the media coverage.
The most shocking courtroom even this year may have been the release of the West Memphis 3. In 1993, Jessie Misskelley, Damien Echols and Jason Baldwin were convicted of killing three eight year old boys. Misskelley confessed to the killing and said Echols and Baldwin also took part in the homicides.
The convicted killers, teenagers at the time, were swiftly arrested and convicted, painted by cops and the media as direction-less devil-worshippers, who killed the boys for fun.
The crime outraged the community and the local and national press.
But after the conviction, Misskelley said he was coerced into a confession. The other teens never confessed.
The three likely would have remained in prison for the rest of their lives, had it not been for a documentary called “Paradise Lost: The Child Murders at Robin Hood Hills.”
The documentary sparked new interest in the case among investigators, celebrities and the mainstream press.
And when Pearl Jam’s Eddie Vedder, The Dixie Chicks and Johnny Depp, came out publicly in support of the West Memphis 3, the mainstream media really started to pay attention.
A full year before they were released, the celebrities held a benefit concert to build support for their conviction.
Television and newspapers reported the event and it was clear that the mainstream was, at the very least, treating the West Memphis 3 as celebrities themselves.
The three were essentially released for time served, in a plea bargain, where they admitted no guilt, but the judge let them go because of the doubts about their case.
In all these cases, the media played a significant role in the outcome. For better or worse, juries are often convinced by descriptions in the mainstream press, or they rebel against them.
The influence of the media underscores the necessity of proper journalism training, no matter the medium for expression, to protect against false or distorted characterizations of the facts.