Trial by media

From Academic Kids

Trial by media is a phrase popular in the late 20th and early 21st centuries to describe the impact of television and newspaper coverage on a person's reputation by creating a widespread perception of guilt regardless of any verdict in a court of law.

In the UK there is a heated debate between those who support a free press which is largely uncensored and those who point to an individual's right to privacy regardless of what they may have done wrong.

During high publicity court cases the media is often accused of provoking an atmosphere of public hysteria akin to a lynch mob which not only makes a fair trial nearly impossible but means that regardless of the result of the trial the accused will not be able to live the rest of their life without being hounded at every turn.

The counter-argument is that the mob mentality exists independently of the media which merely voices the opinions which the public already has.

There are different reasons why the media attention is particularly intense surrounding a legal case: the first is that the crime itself is in some way sensational, by being horrific or involving children; the second is that it involves a celebrity either as victim or accused.



Although a recently coined phrase, the idea that popular media can have a strong influence on the legal process goes back certainly to the advent of the printing press and probably much further. This is not including the use of a state controlled press to criminalize political opponents, but in its commonly understood meaning covers all occasions where the reputation of a person has been drastically affected by ostensibly non-political publications.

20th century

One of the first celebrities in the 20th century to be arguably tried by media was Fatty Arbuckle who was acquitted by the courts but nevertheless lost his career and reputation and ultimately his life due to the media coverage.

Parallels have been drawn between this case and the later trial of OJ Simpson. The connection is less about guilt or innocence but about the promotion of the media coverage in the public mind above the status of the court.

Another interesting case in the US was the Rodney King incident and subsequent trial of the police officers involved. Once again an acquittal is challenged by the media reporting with violent consequences. What makes this case particularly important historically is the fact that it was amateur video footage which provided the key evidence of perceived guilt. As video cameras and their digital successors and CCTV become more wide spread, this type of 'caught on camera' incident become more and more common (another case of alleged police brutality has come to light in Manchester in February 2004.) This can pose real problems for the legal system as the evidence they provide may be inadmissible for technical reasons (e.g. not being able to pinpoint exact times) but they give very strong images for the media (and public) to seize upon and the potential to manipulate by editing.

Even where a criminal court finds somebody guilty the media can still appear to sit in judgement over their sentence. Examples include Myra Hindley whose proposed release from prison after thirty years was widely condemned by the British press (the argument became moot when she died in 2002); Maxine Carr who is currently being considered for release and is, according to some commentators being "demonised by the press".

Again for balance, it should be stressed that the press are only reporting the views of the person in the street. However, more credibility is generally given to printed material than 'water cooler gossip'.

Families and friends of convicted criminals have apparently successfully used the power of the media to reopen cases, such as the Stephen Downing case in Derbyshire where a campaign by a local newspaper editor resulted in a successful appeal and his release after twenty seven years in prison.

Famous examples



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