Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Whatever happened to "innocent until proven guilty?" Ask the media

This weekend, yet another high-profile trial ended, and there are a lot of angry people. People are protesting, a few attacks have occurred, and the fear of full scale riots are gripping the nation. Of course, this is not the only high-profile case in recent memory. Casey Anthony, Michael Jackson, and OJ Simpson  have all invoked public outrage and divided a nation, sometimes over race, sometimes for other reasons like celebrity or class status. Soon, the hoopla over the George Zimmerman trial will be replaced with the case of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, the alleged Boston Bomber.

We all believed these cases should end in guilty verdicts, but each of these people were found "Not Guilty" by our justice system. How did come to be so sure of a person's guilt even before the trial begins? One word -- MEDIA.

It is no secret the media is very influential. Even the politicians get most of their information from the media. The media is a business, and the business is selling advertising. Controversy sells. Sex offenders, serial murders, terrorist attacks, random acts of crime are the bread and butter of the "serious news" industry. Crime stories play a central role in both local and national media. Anyone who reads or watches the news knows that. 

The media is protected by the First Amendment. "Congress shall make no law ... abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press..." As with any Constitutional right, there are some limits to the right, and the media can be regulated to a point. In fact, in 1949, the FCC introduced the Fairness Doctrine, which required the media to present both sides in controversial issues (though they weren't forced to give equal time to both sides). Unfortunately, that rule was repealed in 1987. The media is no longer obligated to tell the other side of the story, so they often refuse to tell that opposing viewpoint. 

The media isn't very regulated, nor has the media faced many instances of regulation. As far back as the 1700s, the newspapers were exploited by those who owned the printing presses. Ben Franklin wrote under pen names "Silence Dogood" and "busybody" to influence people. It is subject to bias and personal whims. The media is not objective, yet we rely on a biased media for giving information. 

To illustrate the impact of the media, think about a great tragedy that was in the news a little over a decade ago -- the school shooting at Columbine in Colorado. What do you remember? You remember those two bullied teens who created their little group called the 'Trench Coat Mafia," and shot up a school in retaliation for their ill-treatment. Don't forget that they targeted minorities and other groups, and most of all, a girl named Cassie Bernall was asked if she believed in God, she replied 'Yes," and was killed for it (there was even a song by Flyleaf about that event). We believe that much about Columbine.

There is just one little problem-- most of this story was bullshit. The two Columbine killers were actually popular kids, were never a part of the school's "Trench Coat Mafia" goup, or wore Gothic Clothes. The shooting was the result of a botched school bombing-- after they failed to successfully set off a bomb, they just decided to shoot as many people as possible, and the killing was indiscriminate. Cassie Bernall was indeed shot and killed, but it was Valeen Schnurr who was posed the question of her faith after she was shot, and she survived the shooting.

This does not make the Columbine school shooting any less tragic, but it separates myth from reality, and fact from fiction. Some of the myths were comforting (after all, a movement was started based on Cassie's "martyrdom") but desires do not turn untruths into truths. In order to understand a tragedy, we have to see the events as it truly unfolded.

Critical thinking and skepticism does not come easily in a society filled with simple anthems and symbols. It is easy to latch onto the symbolism of "Skittles and a Hoodie" or a "Rachel's Prayer" or "Two I-Beams shaped like a cross" because they become symbols of comfort and of innocence. It is a world of black-and-white where the person we call the victims are wholly innocent and the perpetrators are all guilty as sin. Symbols are powerful things, but sometimes we focus too much on the symbol rather than the message.

In our 24/7 news era, there is no shortage of people willing to talk (and talk and talk and talk...). After a while, there needs to be something new to discuss. In the case of breaking news, there is competition to be the first to bring up something new. The news is more than willing to put something fresh and new, or "get the exclusive." Too often, it comes at a huge price. The old adage "the best impression is the first impression" never rings truer than in the court of public opinion.

This brings this commentary full circle to my original premise-- the first impression may be the lasting impression but it may not be the right impression. The media flooded the airwaves with a preliminary view of events and that story sticks into people's minds. That initial report is repeated. By the time contradictions are presented, those initial reports have been etched into memory. Once that story is etched into a person's mind, it is hard to convince that person to see things differently. 

The Sixth Amendment: "In all criminal prosecutions, the accused shall enjoy the right to a speedy and public trial, by an impartial jury of the State and district wherein the crime shall have been committed, which district shall have been previously ascertained by law, and to be informed of the nature and cause of the accusation; to be confronted with the witnesses against him; to have compulsory process for obtaining witnesses in his favor, and to have the Assistance of Counsel for his defense." 

There is nothing in the 6th Amendment about the right to be tried in the court of public opinion (or "trial by media"). In theory, the US Justice system selects a jury of "peers," or at least a jury of people least favorable to media hype. In today's culture of 24/7 braking news, that is a very tall order. The only way to be completely ignorant of an event these days is to be free of the internet, the TV, avert your eyes in the checkout lanes (because of gossip rags), and avoid gossipy friends. 

By the time a case goes to trial, the court of public opinion has reached its verdict-- GUILTY! So the people watch and wait. But then something happens. The defense presents contractions to the myth. The killer's glove didn't fit. Casey's mom dismantles the myth of the Chloroform Google search. Rachel Jeantel takes the stand and the star witness for the prosecution becomes the star witness for the defense. There was a gap between the man and the myth. In court, this gap is called "reasonable doubt."

In a court of law, reasonable doubt is the highest standard of proof. When a myth in our minds, given to us by the media, is dispelled in court, and for a moment we feel we have been lied to, that is reasonable doubt. We were so sure it happened "this way," but we were proven wrong. Is there even a small chance that perhaps this person may not be guilty? That is reasonable doubt. That is not the same as "innocence." 

The court of public opinion has no standards. In the court of public opinion, the first evidence is the best evidence. That explains the discrepancy between public perception and jury decisions in many high profile cases. if people are mad at the court's decision, it is mainly because they already made up their minds and hate being told they were wrong. "Don't confuse me with the facts, I have made up my mind."

English jurist William Blackstone said in 1765, "It is better that ten guilty persons escape than that one innocent suffer." Today, we feel differently, thanks in large part of the media. Until 2008 we had "Court TV" (now TruTV), media talking heads like Nancy (dis)Grace and Dr. Drew run back-to-back to rehash the same news bite, and justice-based TV dramas like Law and Order SVU that further skew our perception of "the system" (we even call the influence of these shows on perceptions of the system the "CSI Effect"). Few, if anyone, is innocent, on those shows. Even the portrayals of the defendants has changed-- a couple of decades ago, we had shows like Matlock and Perry Mason, where defendants were almost always innocent by a witty defense attorney/ investigator. The shows reflect the public attitude, which in turn reflects the media.

This is a long rant, but I have a point to all this. There are a few things that the media COULD do to end bias. I know they won't and this is a pipe dream, but if they could, the world would be a better place and the system of justice would be restored to its role as solemn seeker of justice:

1. I think media coverage of criminal trials in America should follow the guidelines set by our friends across the pond. In the United Kingdom, strict contempt of court regulations restrict the media's reporting of legal proceedings after a person is formally arrested. These rules are designed so that a defendant receives a fair trial in front of a jury that has not been tainted by prior media coverage. Our US Constitution was written in a way to favor the defense for a reason-- to ensure we did not lock up an innocent man, even at the risk of letting a guilty man go free.

2. The media should also bring back the Fairness Doctrine as a rule. One-sided debates, celebrities and washed-up reality stars asked to elaborate on subjects in a "Politically Incorrect" show format does not count. I'd like to see more real, civil debates between experts, not between screeching harpies and dirt truck drivers or hotel managers-turned-celebrity activists with no credentials. 

3. We must revive the concept of "innocent until proven guilty." Far too often, a person's life is ruined simply because that person is accused of a crime. That person becomes a target because some people equate accusations with guilt We cheer, for example, if a man kills another man and claims he did so because the other man "molested his daughter." Do we know that for sure? There was never a trial, just an execution. It gives the green light for others to do the same. 

The media wields great power, and with that great power comes great responsibility in wielding that power. It is past time for the media to be held responsible for this power. 

1 comment:

  1. Excellently written and very thought-provoking piece. It needs to be sent to every major media outlet in the U.S.