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Media Trial Coverage

O.J. Simpson Case Changed Media Coverage


Researchers William E. Loges and Jon Bruschke claim that media coverage of arrests and trials have little influence over the final verdict, in a new book called "Free Press vs. Fair Trials: Examining Publicity's Role in Trial Outcomes."

"The courts have developed remedies for dealing with the potential influence of publicity, including voir dire, admonitions from the judge, continuances, sequestration, change of venue and juror replacement," Loges said. "The biggest problem for the defendant is that you're the defendant. The prosecution has more resources than you do, and you have to be able to afford a good defense."

Ironically, Loges said, any influence news media coverage may have on major trials may not affect juries so much as it might have an impact on judges, prosecutors and even defense attorneys. For judges, the impact may come in sentencing. For counsel trying the case, the media may find holes in either side's argument, or include information not presented as evidence in court - such as prior convictions for a relevant crime by the defendant. The authors note in their book that defense attorneys may be motivated to work harder by excessive publicity, since it calls attention to their efforts and may attract future clients. But in the end, publicity alone isn't enough to affect the verdict in most cases.

Loges said if the O.J. Simpson trial did one thing, it was change the way the news media approach a major trial.

Media Can Get Away With More

"In the case of celebrities - whether it is the Robert Blake murder trial or Winona Ryder's shoplifting trial - you get a breathless nature of coverage," Loges said. "The media feel they can get away with more now than before, and the competition is frenzied. The distinction between legitimate news coverage and tabloid journalism got blurred during the O.J. trial because outlets like The National Enquirer were breaking stories. The New York Times, trying to double-check sources and facts, found itself getting burned.

"So today it's hard to know the source of information, or the motivation of those presenting it," he added. "News doesn't fit into a 24-hour cycle anymore. Now the story evolves before your eyes and so-called 'facts' are constantly changing.

"The burden on the viewer to understand that change has increased dramatically," Loges said. "But as viewers we're not prepared for that. What's most important to the justice system is that we act as responsible jurors - and our study shows that we are capable of that - even if our media don't provide unbiased coverage of the crimes about which we're asked to deliberate."

Part One: Free Press vs. Fair Trials

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