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.
3 thoughts on “Are media trials becoming more fair?”
Interesting take on it, though one assumption when saying this is a good thing is that the consensus eventually reached about guilt or innocence is actually the truth.
What I meant was that the public opinion probably follows the truth more closely now than before when media trials were less fair. I also think that when the public opinion doesn’t converge, all but the biggest ideologues are more aware of the uncertainty, no matter which way their hunch goes. In real trials, jury opinion does converge when the evidence lets it, but also may not converge if the evidence is not convincing. I picked those four cases to highlight because all of their outcomes hinged on fairness of the media trial. In the case of Cosby, Gomeshi and ‘Jackie’, the end consensus (backed by a fair amount of evidence in each case) came out against the narrative that went to public first, and the case of Nungesser illustrated the perfect example of where both sides seem to have some credibility in some places and inconsistency in others, leaving reasonable doubts. There is certainly a probability that he is guilty in one or more of the cases, but I think he is also highly likely to win his suit against Columbia, since they admittedly violated their own policies on confidentiality when handling his case.
So not all cases will converge when there is not enough evidence and conflicting testimony, but, like real trials, some will converge (for example there is little doubt that Robert Pickton killed people). That those that converge do so on the weight of the evidence rather than the leading narrative I think is a good thing. That others will not converge is also probably a good thing. What the best public response to a non-converging but highly publicized media trial is will be something we have to think about (it is the analogy of a very public indelible non-conviction police record). That may be the topic of a future post.
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