Media’s negative impact in the court room

Photo courtesy of Netflix


Though media outlets give the public a better understanding of issues by unravelling facts and navigating convoluted stories, media also poses the threat of influencing situations.

Photo courtesy of Netflix

This phenomenon is most often seen in documentary films and television series that coincide with an ongoing case. One such example took place in 2016 with Brendan Dassey, a subject of the popular Netflix series Making a Murderer. After the show revealed ethically questionable police preceedings, Dassey had his conviction overturned by a federal judge in a murder case. The judge, critical of how investigators and state courts handled the case, rendered Dassey’s confession involuntary under the Fifth and Fourteenth amendments. Recent evidence also implicates another member of the Dassey family in the murder of Teresa Halbach. With a constant stream of new evidence being introduced and media feedback, it is difficult for a clean, clear, and unbiased legal proceeding to take place.

For high profile cases, media input can have a negative impact in how justice is brought to those affected in the courtroom. With public voices and media noise, wrongful convictions can easily happen due to the combination of human error, emotion, and mass media influencing jurors to make certain decisions. In the Amanda Knox and Raffaele Sollecito case, both were initially found guilty for murder in 2009 but were then declared innocent in 2011. The media wrongfully characterized Amanda Knox as a killer in the radicalized headlines distributed worldwide that made her appear guilty.

Prolonged media fixation on cases threatenes to negatively impact cases by compounding biased sentiments and demonizing the accused as public enemies, placing unmitigated pressure on the courtroom.

Yet one could argue that media potentially impacts legal cases positively by opening up the discussion to the public, who may have other perspectives or evidence that can help the wrongly accused. Individuals who might not be directly involved in the case, such as jurors or friends of the indicted, might take to various media platforms in an attempt to bid for the innocence of the prosecuted.

In a blog under the Huffington Post, Lorenzo Johnson (who was accused of a murder 1995 and then released from prison in 2012) wrote about how support on social media brought the injustice to the public attention. However, despite the media spotlight that was cast on Lorenzo Johnson’s case, he also acknowledges that “the media really does not know how much damage they do by failing to report solid information of a prisoner’s innocence.”

Additionally, the popular podcast Serial has influenced decisions regarding the murder case of Adnan Syed. Syed was convicted of killing his girlfriend, and the story of his conviction is one of the main stories featured in the podcast. With the popularization of his story, Serial inspired investigators to retry the case in order to determine if Syed was wrongfully convicted, as Sarah Koenig—the investigative reporter who narrates Serial—often suggests throughout her findings. With media coverage changing the perceptions of crimes and court cases, it is evident that media can change the judgements of law and help review wrongful convictions.

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