By Dan Trigoboff
The media’s excessive and often sensational coverage of Casey Anthony’s murder trial was surpassed by its excessive whining afterward. Faced with an opportunity to learn from their own disconnect with the jury, many of the trial’s “experts” chose instead to bash the jury, persisting in the same self-centered “analysis” that led to their present embarrassment. No surprise here; faced with an opportunity during the trial to teach viewers about the elements of specific charges, evidentiary burdens and legal presumptions, the self-aggrandizing experts deferred there, too, misleading the public to the point of shock at the actual verdict.
This is neither an endorsement nor a rejection of the jury’s findings. I did not follow the trial closely enough to reach a strong conclusion. But I did pay attention to the coverage-not always willingly; it was hard to avoid–and found myself frequently stunned by commentators’ leaps of logic and fact, and sudden expertise in psychology, body language and prognostication. Of course, you’ve got to be pretty smart to say so much, so badly, and still get paid a lot of money.
Yet, for a lawyer-journalist like myself who has written about coverage of trials for decades, the media’s humiliating performance has a silver lining, perhaps leading to a cable box. Right or wrong, the Casey Anthony verdict demonstrates that jurors need not be affected by media bias or sensational coverage. Restricting the media’s ability to cover courts is neither advisable nor necessary.
Fifteen years ago, as a writer and editor at this magazine, I wrote numerous commentaries endorsing increased access for journalists to courtrooms, including cameras in the courtroom. Nearly fifteen years before that, cameras in the court and reporters’ access to the courts was the subject of my law school thesis. Many in the mid-90s blamed an overly aggressive press for the unpopular verdict in the O.J. Simpson murder trial, and federal and state judges took it out on TV networks and stations looking to televise trials. I argued then, and now that the media-especially the cameras in the courtroom-exposed, rather than caused the flaws in the system, and that we’re better off knowing than not knowing.
The historical argument against such access considers the power of the press to influence the public, taint a jury pool, and deny criminal defendants the constitutional right to a fair trial. The Sixth Amendment comes further down in the Bill of Rights than the First, but it’s a primary and essential right nonetheless.
The media, no doubt, can play a role in what people think, and what people think about. And if ever there was a case where the media demonstrated clear, even overwhelming bias, this was it.
But courts have numerous ways to counter, even negate the media’s influence without cutting the media out. Judges can move highly publicized trials to distant communities, or stay home and import jurors from those distant communities (obviously interest the Anthony trial went well beyond local boundaries). Judges can restrict key players in a highly visible trial from talking with the media, without restricting the media itself. And they can sequester the jury, as was the case here. Of course, jurors were exposed to massive publicity before they were impaneled, but voir dire is available to eliminate potential jurors who cannot dismiss prior publicity and render a verdict based on the evidence presented. We would hardly want jurors who are totally uninformed on current events.
Some have already inexplicably tried to blame the presence of cameras for the unpopular verdict in this trial. I would argue here that viewers who had paid more attention to the trial itself and less to the pre-judging commentators would have been less surprised by its outcome and better equipped to make up their own minds. Just like the jurors.
It would be nice to argue that the extensive coverage of this trial demonstrates the unique ability of the media, particularly television, to educate viewers about the principles and intricacies behind our legal system. I can’t meet that burden of proof. But I can argue successfully, I think, that the media did a really lousy job, meeting the lowest expectations of bias and influence on public opinion, and it had no impact whatsoever on the right to a fair trial.
Dan Trigoboff, a former writer and editor at Broadcasting & Cable, teaches media law and journalism at Methodist University in Fayetteville, N.C. He is currently an advisor to the North Carolina Open Government Coalition.