With first the advent of the 24-hour news cycle at the end of the last century, and now the rise of mass online news and social media, there is no doubt that so-called ‘media trials’ (where allegations of criminal or civil offences, or otherwise abhorrent behaviour, are played out in the media before or instead of the courts) are becoming more common. But has mass media also made media trials more fair?
In the days when there were only a small number of major media outlets, it would be common for only one article on a given scandal to run, thereby immortalizing a single take on the story in the court of public opinion. These one-sided narratives could be easily abused by accusers or the accused. If the accuser got their story out first, the reputation of the accused could be irreparably ruined, even if they were eventually exonerated. If the accused got out in front of a story – even if guilty – they could irreversibly quash the credibility of their victims and intimidate others thinking of coming forward.
Now that we live in a world where anyone can publish anything anytime (see, for example, this blog), it may be much easier to either publicly make a serious accusation or publicly get out in front of a serious accusation, but it is also much more difficult to monopolize the media narrative once the story is broken. At least for serious accusations, it is now common to have a large number of articles published on a single scandal, which cover – as a collective – a wide range of viewpoints and tend to uncover a broader base of evidence. It is also more common for large media outlets to individually publish different sides of the same story.
This wealth of information allows a reader (with enough interest in the case to read many articles) to make a much more informed judgement on the accused and to have a much more accurate idea of the questions and uncertainties that criminal and civil juries would have to face. For example, the recent cases involving Jian Gomeshi, Bill Cosby, Emma Sulkowicz/Paul Nungesser and Rolling Stone’s “Jackie”/UVA Fraternity all have the characteristics of quite fair media trials. Regardless of which side went to press first (the accused in the cases of Gomeshi and Cosby; the accusers in the other two cases), the accuser(s) and the accused in each case both got ample chances to present their versions in significant media outlets. And perhaps with the exception of the Sulkowicz/Nungesser case (where Columbia University amazingly has the potential to lose two separate lawsuits from each party; see here and here), each case seems to have ultimately led to pretty clear public consensus on the basic premise of guilt or innocence.
The relatively good behaviour of mass media outlets may not yet extend to the kangaroo courts of the Twitter-verse or academia (see two recent cases that have gone to a new level of ridiculous here and here), but it’s a start.