The media profoundly influences our culture. The news media—including newspapers, radio, television, and the internet—play an essential role in shaping public discourse. Prosecutors, defendants, and defense counsel often have difficulties in court because of the widespread publicity surrounding many criminal cases. As much media attention as a case may have received before trial, juries are still expected to make decisions without prejudice. During their duties, police personnel investigating criminal cases may find themselves embroiled with the media. Witnesses’ and jurors’ demeanors may be altered by the presence of media representatives, particularly television cameras in the courtroom.
Every criminal offender has the right to a trial by an unbiased jury of community members. It may be challenging to pick a jury in a high-profile case because of the media attention the matter receives. The jury members’ preconceived notions about the case will be influenced by the media’s portrayal of the events leading up to the trial. During voir dire, the process of choosing jurors from a pool of possible jurors, each juror is individually questioned to determine their level of objectivity. Both the defense and prosecution attorneys will interrogate prospective jurors about their capacity to make fair judgments and obey the judge’s instructions, as well as other matters, such as whether or not they were exposed to pre-trial publicity.
Scientific studies in the social sciences have shown that “exposure to the different media had a prejudiced influence on individuals since they were ignorant of their prejudices.” The coverage may have swayed potential jurors, who often declare they have not been affected by media coverage. Members of the jury who claim they are too emotionally invested in the case to be objective or who refuse to obey the judge’s instructions are dismissed “for a cause.” Peremptory challenges, often known as “peremptory strikes,” enable attorneys to exclude potential jurors without providing a reason.
Especially capital cases are often the subject of substantial, highly heated reportage. Furthermore, death-qualified jurors may be more vulnerable to pre-trial publicity than other juries, making these cases more challenging. Researchers identified two possible explanations for these observations. First, people who qualified for death were more likely to watch daily news programs, increasing their awareness of the case’s details. Second, according to previous research, death-qualified jurors have pro-prosecution views, making them more likely to find the defendant guilty.
Research shows that judges are also vulnerable to media attention when making decisions. According to research conducted by Stanford University, “news coverage amplifies the effect of voters’ punitive preferences on the criminal sentence judgments” of elected judges for violent offenses involving severe injuries. When a case gets extensive media publicity, elected judges tend to impose harsher sentences than when the case receives less coverage.
The Use of Courtroom Cameras
Although the public has always been welcome to see trials in the United States, until recently, this only applied to present individuals in the courtroom physically. The sum of people who can watch a trial thanks to television broadcasts and online streaming has grown substantially, prompting concerns about how this increased attention from the public would affect the outcome of the case.
Witnesses may change their testimony if they know cameras and reporters will be watching. For instance, if a witness’ identity were publicly disclosed at trial, a criminal group may retaliate against the witness for testifying. Knowing that their verdict, whatever it may be, would be seen across the globe may persuade jurors. A Florida jury acquitted Casey Anthony of murdering her 2-year-old daughter following a highly publicized trial broadcast on television. After receiving harsh criticism from the press and the public, the court in the case “sealed” the jurors’ identities to ensure their safety. The possibility of such effects seriously threatens the defendant’s right to a fair trial.
The United States Supreme Court is split on permitting cameras in the courtroom.
Providing a Fair Trial
“High profile” cases, such as the murder trial of Officer Derek Chauvin, get extensive media attention and have posed considerable challenges for the courts. Consequently, when media coverage of a trial is intense, the courts are often forced to adopt alternative, more costly measures to ensure a fair trial.
These solutions include:
- Relocating the whole trial to a city where press coverage is less intense;
- The jury is instructed not to read newspapers or watch television newscasts.
- Issuing “gag orders” that prohibit the prosecution, defense counsel, and other court employees from discussing the matter with the media; or
- In rare instances, jurors are kept in a hotel where they are monitored and denied access to the media.
Need an Attorney? CALL NOW: 310-274-6529
Seppi Esfandi is an Expert Attorney who has over 21 years of practice defending a variety of cases.