The Media’s Destruction of Innocent until Proven Guilty

December 12th, 2014 by Tad Nelson in Criminal Defense

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The past decade or two have seen a rapid expansion in the amount of news media that people have access to. Although the ratings of the cable news networks continue to decline the sensationalism has risen exponentially. Websites and blogs have proliferated. Social media has allowed people to consume more news faster without any concern for accuracy. This has led to a problem for media companies. They suddenly need to fill so much more space. This space filling has created the disturbing trend of members of the media passing judgment in criminal cases long before the jury does, and in some cases even without an actual ongoing criminal case.

Take statements like “Bill Cosby’s denials ring hollow,” in reference to the recent rape allegations against him, or “You hear this damning evidence against [Casey Anthony],” in reference to her criminal trial for killing her daughter. Members of the media made these statements without hearing all the evidence, and without being in the courtroom; this does real damage to the idea of innocent until proven guilty. Whenever the media makes conclusions based on how things look there is always the chance they are right, in fact the majority of the time they will be right. More times than not there is enough information in the public domain to make a fairly reliable conclusion. The problem comes when there isn’t enough information or the information is misinformation. This can change everything and it can cause disastrous problem for the innocent that are crucified by an uninformed media.

What Innocent until Proven Guilty Means

Innocent until proven guilty may sound like nothing more than a high-minded ideal, the notion that everyone gets a fair trial, but it is more than that. It is an actual legal principle with real world effects. Innocent until proven guilty means that when a prosecutor brings charges against someone, it is the prosecutor’s job to prove that they are guilty, not the defendant’s job to prove their innocence. The prosecutor has both the burden of production; he must bring the evidence and the burden of persuasion; he must convince the jury beyond a reasonable doubt of his case. In theory, a defendant could choose not to present a single shred of evidence in their favor, and still walk away with a not guilty verdict, if the prosecutor failed to prove them guilty beyond a reasonable doubt. Though, that’s not always the best trial strategy.

The Media’s Responsibility

The media has a special responsibility to respect this pillar of the criminal justice system. The media is supposed to provide a lens through which everyone else can view the world. This is a tremendous power. What the news chooses to report on and how they choose to present it powerfully impacts people’s views on a subject. The problem is the news is no longer a news show. It is reality TV, it is entertainment, CNN and Fox News have become no different than Keeping up with the Kardashians.

Take the recent example of Ferguson, where members of the media quickly retreated into their expected corners on the issue. This is an understandable impulse. Ferguson was a situation that people viewed differently depending on their values. Members of the media who favored law and order naturally gravitated towards the officer’s side, convicting Michael Brown of assaulting him without a trial. Conversely, newscasters who cared more about law enforcement’s poor record on racial issues did the same to Officer Wilson.

It is natural for newscasters to have these feelings, just like everyone else. People make intuitive judgments all the time. However, it becomes a problem when these intuitive judgments turn into premature convictions for everyone to see on TV and the Internet. Juries are supposed to be unbiased. In an ideal world, they go in knowing nothing about the case, letting the lawyers for both sides present their cases. In today’s world, the notion that the members of the grand jury in Ferguson knew nothing about the case seems preposterous. And so with judgment already assigned, these grand jury members have to be influenced by the outside chatter and senseless diatribe from that rings 24/7 from the news, I mean entertainment outlets!

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